Beware the undertow on the Jersey Shore

Governor Chris Christie's cosy relationship with Obama could turn and bite him in the Primaries.

The Jersey Shore is a very important place for the people of New Jersey. This is where they come to play, to let their hair down. Many, maybe most New Jerseyans, even those who live on the other end of the state, have some sort of fond memories of the place; a beach house rented with friends after graduating high school, maybe; a day-trip to the beach or a waterfront funfair as a kid on a sunny day. This is why, when Hurricane Sandy punished the Shore late last year, it had such a psychological effect. If they could have fought the storm bare-fisted, New Jerseyans would do it. “It's a New Jersey thing,” they'd say.

This week, President Obama visited the Shore to see how it was doing post-Sandy; and while he was there he took the opportunity to hang out with New Jersey's larger-than-life Republican governor Chris Christie. It was quite the love-in. Christie, who before Sandy had been a fairly partisan critic of the administration, has been admirably unafraid to praise Obama's handling of the storm relief. Similarly, Christie's handling of Hurricane Sandy won him support among many moderates – and from the President – for his brash, no-nonsense approach. Famously, his abandonment of Presidential campaigning in general – and Romney by implication – on Fox and Friends which went viral after appearing on The Daily Show soon after the storm. But his cosy relationship with Obama, while it allows him to bask in Presidential stardust, may soon make things difficult for the ambitious governor.

There is no denying that Christie is a big character, brash and straight-talking and New Jersey through-and-through, very popular in his home state and well-known nationwide. New Jersey is a blue – Democrat – state, and, as the New York Times' Nate Silver observes, drifting leftward by the day; Obama won there last year by a margin of nearly 20 percent. But Christie's personal approval rating there is 69 per cent; an NBC News/Marist poll earlier this month projected him to win re-election against Democrat challenger Barbara Buono 60 per cent to 28 in November.

As things stand, along with Florida Senator Marco Rubio – protégée of Jeb Bush – Christie probably represents the greatest threat to the Democrats come the 2016 Presidential election. He is portrayed nationally as a moderate – and certainly is one next to Rubio, even though he has shown evidence in the past of being further to the right on issues like abortion and gay marriage than many seem to believe.

But as much as it looks good in times of storms and endears him to swing voters – and is even (god forbid in politics) the right way for a leader to behave – his bipartisan cosying-up to the President is a risky game for him to play. If he truly has his eye on the White House, Christie will soon face the unenviable task of having to sell himself to the Republican base in the primaries as a prospective Presidential pretender.

Primary elections, the elections within the party to choose the candidate, give an extraordinary amount of power to small, arbitrary places, meaningful often for reasons of historical oddity, like Iowa, for example, whose caucuses are obsessed-over purely because they get to go first and set the tone. In a lot of cases, the local GOP parties are dominated by hard-right Tea Party activists, which meant in the last election that some really strange candidates get their chance to shape the message.

The Republican primaries, like the Daily Mail's message boards, are where the nutters live. They are what really killed Mitt Romney's chances in 2012. A moderate at heart, a defecit hawk but not a bible-thumper, Romney had to tack so far and so suddenly to the right to fend off candidates like Michelle Bachmann and Herman Cain on issues like abortion and immigration that by the time he got through to the convention all his policy positions were shot to hell – even before Obama had started campaigning. It is in these primaries that things are going to get tough for Christie, who was facing criticism from the hard-line Fox News Republicans for what they see as disloyalty even before he bromantically gifted Obama a teddy-bear in front of the nation's media on the New Jersey boardwalk.

The manoeuvrings for 2016 have already begun. That's what the Benghazi scandal is really: the first scrapings-together by the right of potential ammunition to use against Hilary Clinton if she runs. Are the Democrats are trying to tempt one of their most dangerous potential opponents with a political honeytrap? Maybe not intentionally, but even if it's an accident, that's effectively what's happening. Today's photo-op will give Christie's opponents plenty of ammunition. The GOP is the party, remember, which fielded candidates in the last primary who were still loudly demanding to see Obama's birth certificate, who believed that “the secular-socialist machine presents as great a threat to Amerca as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union”, who appear to think that Obama is a satanist plot.

They, and those whose support feeds them, are who "Christie for President" will be dealing with when primary season rolls around. Grinning pictures with Obama, high-fiving by the seaside? That's not a winning look to those guys.

Obama and Christie at their joint press conference on the Jersey Shore. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty
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On Brexit, David Cameron knows exactly what he's doing

It's not a dead cat - it's about disarming the Leave campaign. 

If you’re explaining, you’re losing. That’s the calculation behind David Cameron’s latest entry into the In-Out (or Remain-Leave in new money) battle. The Prime Minister has warned that were Britain to leave the European Union, the migrant camp at Calais – popularly known as “the Jungle” – could move to Britain. But Eurosceptic campaigners have angrily denounced the remarks, saying that there’s little chance of it happening either way.  

Who’s right? My colleague Henry Zeffman has written a handy explainer of the ins and outs of the row, but the short version is: the Eurosceptic campaigners are broadly right.

But the remarks are very far from a gaffe by Downing Street or Cameron, and they aren’t a “dead cat” strategy – where you say something offensive, prompting a debate about that instead of another, trickier issue – either.

Campaigners for Remain have long been aware that immigration remains their glass jaw. The line wheeled out by Cameron has been long-planned. Late last year, senior members of the In campaign discussed what they saw as the danger points for the campaign. The first was a renegotiation that managed to roll back workplace rights, imperilling the support of the Labour party and the trade unions was one – happily avoided by Cameron’s piecemeal deal.

That the deal would be raked over in the press is not considered a risk point. Stronger In has long known that its path to victory does not run through a sympathetic media. The expectation has long been that even substantial concessions would doubtless have been denounced by the Mail, Telegraph and Sun – and no-one seriously expected that Cameron would emerge with a transformative deal. Since well before the general election, the Prime Minister has been gradually scaling back his demands. The aim has always been to secure as many concessions as possible in order to get an In vote – but Downing Street’s focus has always been on the “as possible” part rather than the “securing concessions” bit.

Today’s row isn’t about deflecting attention from a less-than-stellar deal, but about defanging another “risk point” for the In campaign: border control.

Campaign strategists believe they can throw the issue into neutral by casting doubt on Leave’s ability to control borders any better. One top aide said: “Our line is this: if we vote to leave, the border moves from Calais to Dover, it’s that simple.” They are also keen to make more of the fact that Norway has equally high levels of migration from the European Union as the United Kingdom. While In will never “own” the issue of immigration, they believe they can make the battle sufficiently murky that voters will turn to the areas that favour a Remain vote – national security, economic stability, and keeping people in their jobs.

What the row exposes, rather than a Prime Minister under pressure is a politician who knows exactly what he’s doing – and just how vulnerable the lack of a serious heavyweight at the top makes the Leave campaign(s). Most people won't make a judgement based on reading up the minutinae of European treaties, but on a "sniff test" of which side they think is more trustworthy. It's not a fight about the facts - it's a fight about who is more trusted by the public: David Cameron, or Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling or Priti Patel? As one minister said to me: "I like Priti, but the idea that she can go against the PM as far as voters are concerned is ridiculous. Most people haven't heard of her." 

Leave finds itself in a position uncomfortably like that of Labour in the run-up to the election: with Cameron able to paint himself as the only option guaranteeing stability, against a chaotic and muddled alternative. Without a politician, a business figure or even a prominent celebrity who can provide credibility on the level of the Prime Minister, any row about whether or not Brexit increases the chances of more migrants on Britain’s doorsteps helps Remain – and Cameron. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.