Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Should Chris Christie move to the right?

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
August 12, 2013 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Idea that GOP candidates must tack to the right to gain support is myth
  • He says Chris Christie's chances at presidency would be stronger if he stayed in center
  • Christie appeals to Democratic voters; running to the right would lose them, Zelizer says
  • Zelizer: The most successful GOP presidential candidates have pushed moderate themes

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- If he decides to run for president, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will need to push back against the inevitable pressure that he will encounter to move to the right.

Christie has emerged as one of the most exciting potential candidates for the GOP, a Republican who has been popular in a blue state and who has demonstrated the kind of straight talk with the media that voters find appealing.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

In New Jersey, a recent poll shows 30% of the Democratic vote supporting Christie.

His willingness to take on the barons of his own party, without capitulating to his Democratic opponents, has bolstered the impression that he would try to break the gridlock that has bogged down Washington, much as Barack Obama did as a presidential candidate in 2008. His emphasis on budgetary conservatism rather than social and cultural conservatism also has the potential to win over moderate voters.

The conventional wisdom will quickly push him to placate the right, even before he officially starts running, just in terms of what he does in a second term as governor of New Jersey.

For decades, pundits and experts have constantly warned that the nature of the presidential primary system means that a candidate has to move far to the right within the GOP if he or she is going to win over voters who tend come out for these contests, voters who veer toward the extremes of the political spectrum.

Christie picks fight with Sen. Rand Paul

Yet the conventional wisdom tends to overstate the political benefits that Republican presidential candidates derive from shifting to the right and downplays the damage that is caused by such moves.

At the most basic level, moderate Republicans, often governors, who try to dramatically transform their images for primary voters are usually not very effective. Conservatives don't walk away feeling as if they are true bedfellows, and the rest of the voters are left to wonder how hard the candidate will really fight for a new agenda that crosses the partisan divide. Democrats are also given a treasure chest of controversial statements to paint their opponent as an extremist.

In 2012, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney tried to convince the right that he was a true conservative with hardline statements on health care and taxes that clearly contradicted his own political record in the Bay State.

Rather than running on his record, Romney started to run away from it and tried to pretend he was a very different kind of candidate, a politician who was "severely conservative," as he later said.

In the end, however, Republican primary voters did not pick Romney because he was a far-right conservative but because he appeared to be the most viable candidate for the general election. But by the time of the Republican convention, Romney's flip-flopping made it hard to sell himself to voters as something different, and Obama pounded away on the conservative statements that came out of the primaries as evidence that Romney really was a right-wing conservative, more out of the tradition of Barry Goldwater than the tradition of Nelson Rockefeller. The story of a Republican governor in a blue state who had been able to work with Democrats to solve big problems like health care was impossible to tell.

Christie should realize that he will never be a Sen. Ted Cruz, even to right-wing voters. What he will be able to sell to them in the primaries is the claim that his straight-talking, pragmatic approach to Republican politics will do better in the general election against a formidable candidate like Hillary Clinton and would probably do more to actually advance the party as well as legislation that matters to those who support the GOP. This is his best argument for the primaries and for the general election.

The Republicans who have done best in presidential elections have steered clear of the right and offered themes that united their coalition and even attracted some Democrats. In 1968 and 1972, Richard Nixon focused on the "Silent Majority" of Americans who were unhappy with the anti-war protests taking place in the colleges and the urban riots. His main message, one that had broad appeal, was that the war in Vietnam was a disaster and that he would do better.

Ronald Reagan, though closely aligned with the conservative movement, built his campaign in 1980 around the themes of anti-communism and anti-taxation -- as well as attacks on Jimmy Carter. In 1988, George H.W. Bush did the same. His son George W. Bush promised voters an agenda of "compassionate conservatism" in 2000 and national security in 2004.

Even the Republicans who gained the nomination and went on to lose in the general election tended to be the moderates in the primaries, not the candidates of the hard right.

In 1976, President Gerald Ford fended off a strong challenge from Reagan, who at that point made little effort to hide his right-wing allegiance. In 1992, President Bush stifled a challenge from former Nixon speechwriter Patrick Buchanan, who made a hard pitch to social and cultural conservatives, while in 1996, Republicans picked Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole over right-wing candidates like Buchanan.

In 2008, it was maverick and bipartisan bridge builder Sen. John McCain who won the nomination, a candidacy hurt only when he made his appeals to the right and undercut his greatest virtues as a politician, and in 2012, it was Romney rather than the huge cast of conservatives who filled the airwaves.

In all of these cases, it is true that the candidates appealed to the right during key primaries like South Carolina, but it remains far from clear that their victories rested on these kinds of obvious moments of political posturing as much as the overall viability of their candidacy for November. The costs outweighed the benefits.

The point is that in presidential campaigns, moderation can be a powerful tool for Republican candidates.

Christie has made a lot of progress over the past year in positioning himself as a potential candidate. He should look at the historical record before taking the bait to shift right. If Christie makes too many statements that undermine his image, he might very well hand the next Democratic candidate a victory before the campaigns even get under way.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT