Right after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced he would expand Medicaid under the new federal health law, Tea Party Nation opined in a tweet: “Liberal jello blob Chris Christie thanks Obama by expanding Obamacare to NJ.” That was followed by a #liberalsellout hashtag.
Christie’s decision came amid news that he would not be invited to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference next month. National Review reported some of the reasoning: He has a “limited future” in the GOP. Because he supports gun control, he’s not really a conservative.
Why stop there? He praised President Obama for his Hurricane Sandy performance. He thinks climate change is real. Also he has a man crush on Bruce Springsteen, the Democrats' go-to entertainer to fire up crowds before elections. Where conservatives and Christie are concerned, Medicaid is just one more deal breaker in a series.
In fact, Christie could do worse than aspire to the role that Clinton played for Democrats in 1992. The young Arkansas governor was perceived as the solution to a problem that had dogged Democrats for 20 years by then. Before the primary that year in New Hampshire, one liberal Democrat after another told me that their hearts belonged to Tom Harkin or Bob Kerrey or Jerry Brown, but they were going to vote for Clinton. They were tired of losing with stereotypical liberals who were easily caricatured as soft on crime and defense, and they saw the Southern moderate as a game-changer.
Christie is not the first GOP governor to decide it would be in the interest of his state’s poor people, health providers and general economy to adopt the Medicaid expansion option in the Affordable Care Act. He is in fact the eighth. But – and it’s a big but – he is the only one who is considering a presidential run in 2016.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Texas Gov. Rick Perry are two potential contenders who have rejected the Medicaid option. A third, Bob McDonnell of Virginia, has opened the door a sliver by agreeing to a commission to explore the possibility. But he did it solely to get a transportation funding deal passed, and the commission has all the signs of a bridge to nowhere.
In a budget address Tuesday, Christie took pains to outline his position in the most conservative way possible: Other states will get the federal money if New Jersey doesn’t take it, hospitals and health providers will benefit, taxpayers will save money, and 104,000 people will gain insurance. “It’s the smart thing to do for our fiscal and public health,” he said. “If that ever changes because of adverse actions by the Obama Administration, I will end it as quickly as it started.”
And by the way, “I am no fan of the Affordable Care Act. I think it is wrong for New Jersey and for America. I fought against it and believe, in the long run, it will not achieve what it promises.”
All of those caveats would mean nothing during a primary campaign against Republicans far more conservative than he. Christie, saddled with his Northeastern pragmatism and – the horror – extending health insurance to tens of thousands, will be a non-starter in 2016 if the political climate is the same then as it is now.
The irony is that Christie has a record 74 percent approval rating in his blue state, and 71 percent of his constituents think he deserves to be reelected. That suggests broad appeal and a national future – but only if his party figures out how to embrace rather than shun people like him.