During his first term in office, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made a reputation for himself as a hard-hitting, tell-it-like-it-is politician – not afraid to weigh in on the important issues of the day, get in the faces of constituents at town hall meetings, or even buck Republicans by praising President Obama for his handling of Hurricane Sandy in the lead-up to the 2012 election. Consequences be damned, Christie would speak his mind.
But as Christie mulls a bid for the Oval Office in 2016, he’s also grown increasingly restrained.
The controversial CIA torture report is just the latest example of a hot-button issue in which Christie has shied away from taking a stance. When asked about the recently released Senate report, which detailed torture tactics the Bush-era government used on terrorism suspects following the Sept. 11 attacks, the governor declined to offer an opinion.
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“I’ll take some time to look at it. I don’t know about all of it. But I’ll take some time to get briefed on it for sure,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “I’m not going to comment based just on what I’ve read so far. It would be irresponsible.” Gov. Christie’s office did not return a request for comment asking if Christie has since read the report and what he thinks about it.
Interestingly, the governor has previously spoken out against using torture in the war on terror. In 2002, Christie – then U.S. Attorney for New Jersey — said “I cannot believe, given the history of this country, that no matter what the threat to our country that we would forsake our protection of liberties to the extent that we would advocate torture as a way of getting evidence.”
Christie joins several potential 2016ers who are keeping quiet on the report, including former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, whose brother George W. Bush was president when the harsh interrogation tactics were used by the CIA. So far, of the potential GOP field, only Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas have definitively weighed in. The two senators skewered the findings, insisting they were partisan and undermine Americans trying to protect national security. Vice President Joe Biden – who has not ruled a 2016 Democratic bid out—has defended the report’s release. “We made a big mistake,” he said. “And to make sure it never happens again, we’re going to let the whole world know the mistake we made.”
But unlike his potential competitors, the terror report is just one of several divisive issues Christie has little to say on.
When asked earlier this month about the Staten Island grand jury’s controversial decision to not indict white police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the July apparent chokehold death of unarmed black man Eric Garner, Christie said he wasn’t in the business in second-guessing grand jury decisions.
When Christie visited Mexico back in September, he refused to talk about immigration—even though a flood of immigrants illegally crossing the U.S. border was dominating headlines over the summer. The governor told reporters he would only discuss the issue “if and when I become a president for the United States.”
The governor has also been reticent about last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the country’s most important civil rights laws. As the Star-Ledger notes, Christie initially deflected questions, saying he had hasn’t had time to read the decision by the high court but hasn’t given an opinion one way or another despite being asked multiple times.
So what’s behind the governor’s strategy?
“It’s an interesting line he has to tread,” said David Redlawsk, the director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling and political science professor at Rutgers University. “He’s not as conservative as the right wing of his party in his own beliefs. To some degree, I think he’s trying to be really carefully in appearing to not go too far to the right but at the same time recognizing the Republican primary is being driven by the most conservative Republicans.”
Whether or not the tactic backfires is yet to be seen. “I think it an interesting strategy to play it close to the vest until he absolutely has to say something, said Redlawsk. “Some voters care a lot. But the reality is on any specific issue, small number of voters pay attention to fact he says or didn’t say something. When you keep doing this with everything, however, it becomes a problem. It raises real questions about his image as a tell-it-like-is governor.”
David Winston, a Republican strategist and former adviser to Newt Gingrich, said “Trust me, Christie has an opinion on these issues.” But he added that Team Christie is “obviously thinking through 2016 and part of that is his deciding what his focus is going to be if he does this. Is it going to be the economy? International affairs? They are probably just thinking it through and don’t want to engage in something without knowing what that central focus will be.”
To his credit, Christie has weighed in on some big issues lately – but almost always after the initial flurry of coverage and controversy has subsided.
Take, for example, the Supreme Court ruling on Hobby Lobby, which said a privately-held company cannot be forced to provide certain contraception to their employees if they say it’s against their religious beliefs. Initially, Christie argued there was no point in commenting, saying, “The fact is that when you’re an executive, your Supreme Court makes a ruling and you’ve got to live with it unless you can get the legislative body to change the law or change the constitution.” Two weeks later, the governor said he supported the ruling.
And back in August, when Christie was asked on a local radio show if there was a problem with the way police officers treat African-American men in the wake of Ferguson, Mo., Christie said, “I’m not going to get into this business of generalizing against law enforcement officers. It’s not right.” But after the grand jury decision to not indict white police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, Christie called the situation “tragic” and suggested President Obama was partially to blame.
One issue Christie is not afraid to jump on is the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would create an oil transport system from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. During a trip earlier this month to Canada, he said, “My view is that we are missing an enormous opportunity when we delay its development.” He also took aim at President Obama, who – like many Democrats – has expressed major reservations about the project. Christie did not mention Obama by name but referred to “our leader,” saying “This is no way to treat a friend. This is not about sending your oil across our land. It’s about maximizing the benefits of North America’s natural resources for everybody …”
Republican strategist Ford O’Connell recently told msnbc that Keystone — unlike other controversial decisions and issues like immigration – is a winning issue for Christie especially in the lead up to 2016. It’s a project “all Republicans can rally around. It’s not something that divides Republicans like immigration reform.”
Meanwhile, Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey, said Christie’s reluctance to discuss the CIA torture report in particular may be due to it not being an issue he is comfortable talking about. It’s “outside Gov. Christie’s area of policy expertise, and so his reticence in staking out a position may stem from his comparative lack of familiarity with some of the national and international issues at play.”
Christie has said he’s thinking of making a bid for the nation’s highest office, but won’t make a decision until sometime next year. Earlier this week, it was announced the governor will be heading back to Iowa next month for a conservative summit co-hosted by GOP Rep. Steve King and Citizens United – stoking further speculation that the Republican is all but certainly running for president in 2016.