New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's (R) carefully cultivated "brand" includes a few key pillars. The first is that he's a different kind of politician with no use for "politics as usual." The second is that he's a tough leader who won't back down when conditions heat up. And finally, the blue-state Republican has tried to distance himself from much of the extremism that's come to define contemporary conservatism.
Christie's multiple, ongoing scandals have effectively destroyed the first pillar. Christie's approach to governing has knocked down the second, too.
As for the third, the governor threw it out the window with his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) yesterday.
Before digging in, it's worth appreciating the context. CPAC is generally considered the premier conservative event in the country held every year, and ambitious Republicans are always eager to curry favor with conference attendees. Last year, Christie wasn't invited -- he was deemed insufficiently conservative.
Yesterday, in his first appearance in the national spotlight since his scandals erupted, the governor did his best to make up for lost time. Benjy Sarlin helped capture Christie's pitch:
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie may not always get along with the grassroots right, but he hates the press and thinks President Obama is a failure. Isn't that enough?
When the governor is making the case for his presidential ambitions, he emphasizes how mainstream he is. When Christie is wooing CPAC, where "mainstream" is a basically a dirty word, he effectively tells the far-right activists that he and they are on the same team.
Mitt Romney's transition from moderate Republican to conservative champion took a few years. Christie's trying to play both roles at the same time, hoping audiences don't notice the contradictions.
The governor's CPAC message was practically an invitation to mainstream voters to forget everything they thought they knew about him. CPAC Christie wants to take away a woman's right to choose. CPAC Christie hates the media (which, incidentally, has spent years fawning over the governor and giving him a national profile).
CPAC Christie loves the Koch brothers and considers them "great Americans." CPAC Christie is certain the United States doesn't have "an income inequality problem."
CPAC Christie wants conservatives to believe Democrats are "intolerant" people who refuse to let anti-abortion speakers appear at their national convention (a bizarre claim that is plainly untrue). CPAC Christie got huge applause condemning President Obama for refusing to work with Republicans on debt reduction, which was a rather brazen lie given that Obama has made multiple attempts at a compromise, only to be rebuffed by GOP leaders who refuse to make concessions.
CPAC Christie, in other words, bears no meaningful resemblance to New Jersey Christie.
By most accounts, the governor was well received yesterday, which no doubt gave him a morale boost after months of struggling through several scandals. But in electoral terms, it was a Pyrrhic victory -- by moving sharply to the right, Christie satisfied far-right activists and alienated everyone else simultaneously.