10/29/2013 10:46 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Harvard or Not, Chris Christie Is Much Smarter Than Ted Cruz. Do Republicans Care?

Ted Cruz always thinks he's the smartest guy in the room. Jason Zengerle wrote in GQ that the senator from Texas "has come to the reluctant but unavoidable conclusion that he is simply more intelligent, more principled, more right -- in both senses of the word -- than pretty much everyone else in our nation's capital." A roommate from Harvard Law School said Cruz announced he'd only study with students who'd graduated from Harvard, Yale or (like he did) Princeton.

New Jersey's Gov. Chris Christie graduated from the University of Delaware, and got his law degree at Seton Hall. I'll bet Christie thinks he's pretty smart too, whatever Sen. Cruz thinks of his pedigree. In recent days we've seen these two men, two of the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, take diametrically opposed paths in doing their respective jobs.

Earlier in the week, Christie threw in the towel in his fight against marriage equality in New Jersey. The State Supreme Court had issued a unanimous ruling that allowed same-sex marriages to go forward while waiting to hear the Christie administration's appeal, and stated therein that the appeal had little "reasonable probability of success." Christie then decided to drop the appeal (one aide called it a "fool's errand"), and the fight was over.

Let's compare how Christie handled this matter to the Ted Cruz-led strategy carried out by tea party Republicans in Congress, a strategy that led to a two-week long government shutdown, threatened to force a default on our national debt obligations, and which cost our country, according to Standard & Poor's, about $24 billion. Remember, the goal of the shutdown and the default threat was to blackmail President Obama into defunding his signature legislation, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).

No one outside the right-wing echo chamber thought that strategy offered a "reasonable probability of success." One Republican senator called it "the dumbest idea I've ever heard." Did that convince Cruz it was a "fool's errand"? An internal memo produced by Cruz's Senate office after the government reopened provides your answer:

"The defund plan produced tangible results that create both immediate and long-term benefits for the country and the conservative cause."

That must be some echo chamber.

If I really had a good sense of humor, I'd come up with a way to throw in Mr. T's famous "I pity the fool" line here in reference to Sen. Cruz. C'est la vie. But seriously, comparing their tactics makes clear that, in the words of Aaron Blake at the Washington Post, Gov. Christie represents the "anti-Ted Cruz."

Whereas Cruz's policy makes no sense to anyone left of Rush Limbaugh, Christie in 2016 can easily defend his stance along the lines of something like this:

I strongly oppose gay marriage. I fought it in a state where it has widespread support. I vetoed it when the legislature passed it, but then those activist judges took it upon themselves to make law. I never wavered in my opposition to it, but at least - unlike some of my Republican friends in Washington -- I know how to read the writing on the wall when it's obvious my view can't carry the day. One thing I won't do is engage in pointless, self-destructive actions that make a lot of noise but don't accomplish anything or, as with shutting down the government and threatening to default on our debt, actually cost our country billions. I'm a conservative, but I'm also a smart, realistic one. We can't afford to nominate a Don Quixote conservative for President.

Chris Christie definitely has some problems he must to deal with if he wants to win the Republican nomination for president in three years, let alone actually get to the White House. Even his image as a doer who took care of his state's hardest hit after Hurricane Sandy has been damaged now that people are actually examining the record.

On the environment, his conservatism comes through loud and clear, as he removed New Jersey from the interstate Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. His state is also the only significant absence along the coastal drive from Boston to Washington, D.C., (no offense, Delaware) from a new bi-coastal compact -- California and Oregon also signed on -- aimed at making it more convenient to drive an electric car.

The radicalism of the tea party, however, only enhances the ability of someone like Christie to do exactly what John McCain and Mitt Romney did, win the nomination as the most "reasonable" conservative in the party. Christie this week showed that -- while his beliefs remain conservative across the board (i.e., he's no Jon Huntsman or Rudy Giuliani) -- he has in fact learned a thing or two from Kenny Rogers about how to play poker.

Christie should be more likely to win the Republican nomination than Ted Cruz, or any other tea party-linked right-winger such as Rand Paul. Certainly, he's a far stronger general election candidate as well. We'll find out if Republican primary voters follow their heads or their hearts.

In the end, a Chris Christie presidency might not be as destructive to our country as, heaven forfend, a President Ted Cruz would be, but that's an awfully low bar to clear. I might prefer having a pigeon defecate on my head once a day rather than every five minutes, but thankfully those won't be our only two options.