Chris Christie is running for president in 2016. That is perhaps why his seemingly evasive response when asked for an opinion on the recent Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case was so disconcerting for many on the right.
In a heated exchange with CNBC’s Squawk Box hosts on Tuesday, the New Jersey governor defended his pro-life views under a withering barrage of questions about how that point of view may “bog him down” with the broader electorate, and whether he or other Republicans “should run on taking away the right to choose” from women.
When asked if he thought the Court was correct when they invalidated the Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate for some companies on the basis that it violated the 1992 Restoration of Freedom of Religion Act, Christie ran afoul of conservatives when he replied, “Who knows?”
“The fact is that, when you’re an executive, you’re Supreme Court makes a ruling and you’ve got to live with it unless you get the legislative body to change the law or change the constitution,” he added. “Why should I give an opinion on whether they’re right or wrong? At the end of the day, they did what they did.”
“I don’t think that’s the most central issue that we need to talk about this morning, when you look at the challenges that face our country,” Christie said. “And, if I allow people to put me in that box, shame on me. I’m not a good politician, and I’m not a good leader.”
Many other prospective 2016 candidates with widely divergent views on social matters, including Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Rand Paul (R-KY), all issued positive statements on the Court’s ruling just hours after it was announced on Monday. Christie’s delayed and divergent opinion on the case, or lack thereof, prompted a barrage of scornful rebukes from conservatives.
National Review’s Jonah Goldberg called Christie’s response “lame” and “disappointing.” AllahPundit chided the Garden State governor for “yammering on about what executives are supposed to do when a court rules, as if he’s addressing a leadership seminar.” Conservative author and radio host Tammy Bruce reflected on Christie’s comments and mused simply, “Jackass.”
This response from the right is understandable. At best, Christie displayed uncharacteristic and dubious caution about weighing in on this divisive social issue. At worst, he was demonstrating a penchant for slippery equivocation.
Moreover, conservatives are not predisposed to extend New Jersey’s governor the benefit of the doubt on social policy, regardless of his personal views on the morality of abortion. From the governor’s position on access to firearms in New Jersey, to his views on Islam in America, to his state’s ballooning debt, to his infamous embrace of President Barack Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy; conservatives generally don’t trust that Christie is “one of us.”
These are all valid concerns, but the latest – centering on his decision to keep his opinions on Hobby Lobby to himself – is not. Christie’s response to this question was perfectly legitimate, centering as it did on his understanding of enumerated powers. In the executive, the president’s opinion on Supreme Court decisions matters less than does the opinion of members of the congressional leadership who alone have the power to reverse them.
However unlikely, given Christie’s fondness for bombast, his position could just as easily have been interpreted as an indication of his intention to return the executive to its rightful place in American politics and reversing the presidency’s monarchical drift. That is, after all, the sort of president conservatives have long said they desire.
Early in the Obama presidency, amid a surge of public sector activism, conservatives of many ideological stripes rediscovered one of America’s least activist commanders-in-chief: Calvin Coolidge. A flurry of renewed interest the hands-off style of America’s 30th president prompted conservative columnists and politicians to laud “silent Cal’s” republican, unadorned presidency. Though offering a somewhat idealized version of Coolidge’s philosophy, conservatives of a variety of ideological stripes longed for a return to his preference for noninterventionist government and his apparent belief that he could rarely improve the silence.
A passage from The Encyclopedia of the American Presidency best illustrates Coolidge’s habit of frustrating journalists with his caution.
During the 1924 presidential campaign, a reporter asked him: “Have you any statement on the campaign?” “No,” replied Coolidge. “Can you tell us something about the world situation?” asked another. “No.” “Any information about Prohibition?” “No.” When reporters started to leave, Coolidge said solemnly: “Now, remember – don’t quote me.”
It is clear today that conservatives appreciate Coolidge’s thoughtful restraint in theory far more than in practice. After years of nearly unprecedented and divisive activism from the White House, culminating Obama’s brutal 2012 reelection campaign based on fracturing of Americans on the basis of race, sexuality, gender, and class, conservatives seem more interested in settling scores.
This is a forgivable impulse, but it is counterproductive. The strain of libertarian thought coursing through the country as faith in the ability and competency of government erodes heavily favors the conservative approach toward financial and budgetary matters. The president’s self-evident failure to safeguard American interests abroad and restore prosperity at home has renewed the public’s faith in Republicans as stewards of the nation’s affairs.
“Democrats are counting on the president’s edge on social issues to make up for a weak economy,” Politico reported in June of 2012. In the end, it did. In the immediate wake of that shocking loss, Republicans seemed comfortable declaring, as former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels advised in 2010, a “truce” on social matters in order to fight political battles on more favorable ground. That sentiment has disappeared in the intervening years.
A conservative president can never pursue or advance through the power of example conservative social policy if he or she is never elected to office. Many on the right seem more contented to go down swinging so long as they maintain their principled integrity in the process. Democratic candidates for high office, meanwhile, evidence no such scruples. They run as moderates and govern as liberals, and the Overton Window shifts ever further to the left in the process. It is time for Republicans to think a bit more strategically, pick their battles, disband the circular firing squads, and leave the ideological litmus tests to the left.
Chris Christie didn’t stumble when he refused to offer an opinion on Hobby Lobby. In fact, in the definitional sense, he was acting like a conservative.