Once again, Chris Christie has walked the Jersey Shore with President Obama, and once again he has enunciated what his brand of conservatism means. It is not, he said, an attempt to gain political advantage or advance one's ideology. Nothing so ungenerous as that. It's the opportunity to declare that the Jersey shore is "open for business." It's the chance, perhaps, to squeeze a few more dollars out of the federal government for storm relief with a declaration from the president that "we're not done yet."
What Christie cares about, or so it would seem, is not the usual roster of conservative values: limited government, tax reduction, personal liberty, and the like. Rather, it's making sure that Americans know the beaches are open, the boardwalks are rebuilt, and that New Jerseyans continue to receive their fair share of reconstruction funding, and then some. Christie's conservatism seems to stretch from Patterson to Cape May and no farther.
It does not seem to occur to Gov. Christie, or concern him, that the president benefits from this photo-op, just as Obama did, and crucially so, ahead of the 2012 election. Every time Obama wants to divert attention from a political scandal within his administration, he heads for the Jersey Shore, and Christie is there waiting with open arms.
It is astounding that Republicans once touted the governor as a leading candidate for the presidency, and that some still do. If the definition of conservatism is lining the pockets of local businessmen by assuring that the boardwalk opens in time, that sort of thinking does not differ that much from that of President Obama. It's just that Obama's cronyism extends all the way to Silicon Valley. But, of course, before he became a national figure, Obama's politics was no more far-sighted than Christie's. It stretched from one end of Cook County to the other.
What every true conservative knows, and what Gov. Christie apparently does not, is that government resources are limited, that the scope of government action must be constrained, and that politicians are the stewards of precious taxpayer dollars. Of the $61-billion reconstruction funding approved following Tropical Storm Sandy (it was neither a hurricane in strength nor a "superstorm" by the time it made landfall on the Jersey Shore), billions were earmarked in advance for projects that had nothing to do with storm damage. By one estimate, in fact, only 21% of that appropriation is going to storm relief. Repairing the roof on the Smithsonian, which was not in the path of the storm, and a $200-million slush fund for the Department of Health and Human Services do not qualify as disaster relief.
Much of that $61 billion, in other words, was good old-fashioned "waste and abuse" -- the same waste and abuse that Obama made a big issue of in his 2008 election campaign. At that time, he promised to balance the federal budget within five years largely by eliminating "waste and abuse." Now here is Gov. Christie, arm in arm with the president, condoning that kind of spending -- as long New Jerseyans get their share.
That, at least, is my reading of the series of love-ins that have taken place on the Jersey Shore. Obama can't say enough about how great a governor Chris Christie has been throughout the crisis. And Christie has said nothing remotely critical of the president, even as this same president is embroiled in three major scandals and has demonstrated about as much leadership in office as Jimmy Carter.
"He's the president of the United States," Christie was quoted as saying. "I'll be here to welcome him." Respect for the office of the president is one thing, but toadyism is another. It is possible to fulfill one's duties as governor while making it absolutely clear that one does not share the values or vision of a visiting dignitary, even the president of the United States. One cannot imagine Rick Perry exchanging tender glances with the president over a side of Texas barbeque. Nor can one imagine Paul Ryan welcoming the president to Janesville, bratwurst and beer in hand, even if that would bring more tourists to town.
In fact, on this week's Fox News Sunday, Ryan aggressively pressed Obama to provide straight answers on the scandals facing his administration. By contrast, even as he stood in the national spotlight on Wednesday, Gov. Christie spoke not a word about the real challenges facing this country. He seemed a lot more interested in promoting tourism on the Jersey Shore.
What Gov. Christie might have done, had he been a true conservative akin to Paul Ryan or Rick Perry, would have been to extend a polite welcome, noting that it was the president's idea and not his own that the meeting take place, and, perhaps softened by a bit of humor, note that the president must find the Jersey Shore a more comfortable place to hang out at this particular moment than Washington, where he has spent so little time since the IRS and other scandals surfaced. Then shake the president's hand, offer up a cheese dog and fries, or whatever sort of dog New Jerseyans favor, and send him back to D.C.
Instead, Christie, who is up for re-election next year in a liberal state, went the appeasement route. No real conservative will ever forget that Christie's fawning approval of the president immediately ahead of the 2012 election, just as the Benghazi crisis was reaching a head, may well have cost Romney the election. It certainly cost the GOP a number of House and Senate seats by discouraging angry voters who would otherwise have shown up.
The governor may have no interest in running for president in 2016, but if he ever hints at doing so, conservatives should not forget that on two occasions now, Christie has agreed to serve as the president's doormat. A rather bulky and ungainly doormat, to be sure, but an extremely useful one for the president nonetheless.
Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books on American politics and culture, including Heartland of the Imagination (2013).