The old saw that you can't live with them and you can't live without them may apply more aptly to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie than to husbands and wives. The "them" in Christie's case is the Tea Party. Christie so far has made all the right moves in his open march toward seeking the GOP presidential nomination. He won a landslide reelection victory for governor, got some key labor endorsements and masses of Democrats to cross over and vote for him, and proved to be a cash cow by attracting bushels of campaign money from legions of sources, especially, the all-important corporate sector.
He has national name recognition and that's crucial with time ticking away for presidential hopefuls to begin sending signals that they're ready to take a shot at the White House, and that means they must insure that as many voters as possible nationally know their name. This enables them to hit the ground running.
But all those Christie pluses could turn into one stumbling negative unless he can figure out some way to neutralize the Tea Party. When he announced in early 2013 that he would expand Medicaid under the new federal health law, Tea Party Nation tweeted "Liberal jello blob Chris Christie thanks Obama by expanding Obamacare to NJ." It was followed by a #liberalsellout hashtag. Christie also was not invited to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference soon after because of his allegedly too "liberal" position on the issues.
It's true that the Tea Party has apparently seen better days. Polls show that more Americans abhor the Tea Party, or are indifferent to it than ever. Tea Party leaning or backed candidates did dismal in Tuesday's state elections in Alabama and Virginia. Worse, the party seemed to dig its political grave even deeper with its wildly unpopular grandstand overreach in the partial shutdown of the government engineered by Tea Party leaning or backed House Republicans. The party plunged Congress's already deep ocean bottom approval ratings even further to the bottom with that antic.
But that says less about the party's seemingly faded political fortunes, than the hard reality that the party still has formidable power to cajole, hector, and bully GOP leaders into doing the party's bidding, or keeping silent.
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney found that out in 2012 and paid dearly for it. He swapped his relative centrism on issues by GOP standards for a pander to the party on everything from his back pedal on health care to a soft peddle of birtherism (remember his bend over backward to make nice with Donald Trump). Romney never uttered a monosyllable of reproach for any Tea Party position no matter how outlandish. The GOP party regulars, though they privately wrung their hands and warned that the party was facing disaster by nominating unelectable Tea Party backed candidates in Missouri and Indiana, as well in a handful of congressional districts, were stone mute publicly about it. They were looking hard over their shoulder at the Tea Party and its perceived power to make life miserable for any GOP incumbent that did not tow the party line. Christie has firmly staked out positions opposing gay marriage, abortion, and at every turn primping his credential as an anti-big government champion and fiscal conservative. But that hasn't done much to allay the deep suspicion of ultra-conservatives that he's a big Eastern state, closet moderate who would be as bad or worse than what many thought and lambasted Romney as, that is a faux conservative.
If Christie tracks right to assuage them, as Romney tried, he can kiss off a huge bloc of independents. This would be fatal. GOP mainstream leaders, who even in the best of Tea Party days were anxious, if not downright terrified, that their shock battalions might get to unruly, and go too far overboard, and alienate the moderate and conservative independents that they got back in the GOP fold in 2010. They desperately needed them to have any chance of beating Obama in 2012. Obviously, that didn't happen.
Christie loudly tagged his big reelection win as a frontal challenge to the GOP to at least partially rethink its position on key issues, win the war against the Democrats to win back a majority of independents, and most importantly free itself from being hostage to Tea Party fanaticism. That's a tall order.
The Tea Party is far from dead. There are many Americans who still think the idea of smaller government, caps on spending, and debt reduction is noble and necessary goals worth fighting for. And their Tea Party noisemakers still can strike terror in legions of GOP elected officials in more than a few states. Christie's win won't change that. This will continue to be the albatross around his political neck in his drive for the GOP presidential nomination and the White House.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent political commentator on MSNBC and a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.