Gov. Christie of New Jersey was the one Republican hero of the last Election Day. In a season of widespread anger at the GOP and a gubernatorial defeat in a southern state, Christie was re-elected in a landslide victory that instantly raised his credibility as a contender for the 2016 presidential nomination. The moment he was so anointed, there was a tense pause as Republican pundits held their collective breath, praying that the Tea Party would not immediately attack Christie. The danger persists, and opinionators on the right are clearly fearful that they may have created a monster in the TP movement. I've seen preachments from unlikely quarters lately about electability and pragmatism, not to mention some touting of Christie as a Reaganesque figure. A stretch? That loud fat guy a Gipper for the 21st century? But here's what Republicans think they know about Ronald Reagan now: the wisdom of the moment is that Reagan prevailed by reaching out to people rather than alienating them. His is perceived as a positive message, defined by the man's characteristic optimism, rather than the fire and brimstone some brew into their tea today. Christie could not win in a blue state, it's assumed, if Democrats and independents feared him the way they fear the Tea Party poster boys and girls. By any American standard he remains well to the right of center, but he doesn't inspire the fear and loathing his likely rivals do. Forward-thinking Republicans see this as possibly the difference between victory and defeat three years from now. Christie has a secret formula and they want it. More importantly, they don't want Tea Partiers ruining it for them.
What is the secret? Writing from outside New Jersey, all I can judge Christie by is his response to last year's "superstorm." Some on the far right will never forgive him for saying anything positive about President Obama's federal contribution to storm relief, having convinced themselves that he gave aid and comfort to the ideological enemy at a crucial moment close to the presidential vote. But the important thing about Christie's conduct isn't that he played nice with the President or affected nonpartisanship. The crucial thing is that he did not do what many Republicans dream of doing in such circumstances. He did not revert to the principled indifference of a Calvin Coolidge, who infamously resisted giving federal aid to victims of severe flooding in 1927. Instead, Christie reassured people that he would not leave them to their fate (or their just desserts) as a matter of ideological principle or a test of their fitness for survival. In short, if Christie is the Republican front-runner right now it's because he's given proof that he would govern, at least in some respects, like a human being. And that's why some Republicans hate him.