Christie’s Shrewd Move On Social Issues

Ramesh Ponnuru likes how Christie has finessed his social conservatism:

Socially conservative positions on hot-button issues don’t seem to be a deal-breaker even for the much more liberal voters of New Jersey. Christie has vetoed legislation to grant state recognition to same-sex marriage — a judge later ordered it, though Christie briefly appealed — and vetoed bills to fund Planned Parenthood five times.

He does not, however, seem obsessed by social issues: Democrats haven’t gotten much mileage out of ads saying that his priorities are different from those of voters, as they have against Cuccinelli. Christie has also avoided taking unpopular socially conservative stands on issues that aren’t live debates, and taken the occasional opportunity to soften his profile.

Samuel Goldman calls Christie’s strategy “Machiavellian” because Machiavelli thought that “the important thing is to seem to possess the moral virtues, rather than actually to practice them.” He argues that “Chris Christie is a good example of this dynamic” because “Christie knew quite well that his challenge to the gay marriage bill was purely symbolic, since the liberal state supreme court was certain to reinstate the law”:

Christie’s Machiavellian approach isn’t popular with dedicated social conservatives. The National Organization for Marriage and the Family Research Council have both condemned Christie’s handling of gay marriage. But symbolic conservatism is popular with more moderate voters, who want to express disapproval from gay marriage and abortion, but are uncomfortable with policies that seem intrusive or intolerant.

The lesson of today’s election, then, will not be that social conservatives can compete in moderate and liberal areas if they offer more explicit and articulate defenses of their views. It’s that they can get away with expressing social conservative beliefs so long as they do nothing to suggest that those beliefs are likely to end up enshrined in law.