Governor Chris Christie is winning accolades in his home state of New Jersey, with a poll showing that two-thirds of this solid blue Democratic state want him to win in 2013. Christie, who knocked down the embattled Governor John Corzine four years ago, showed an above-politics response to Hurricane Sandy, working hard for the state and not letting partisanship stop him from acknowledging President Obama’s support. But Christie’s example as a sky-high popular governor is only the second-best ever, as the number one’s supporters were quick to point out. We’d all do well to remember Alaska’s Gov. Sarah Palin, to show that while slipping into comfortable partisanship is easy, putting your state first isn’t. Prioritizing your state reaps rewards, but if Christie runs for President in 2016, he most likely will have to turn to partisanship. And New Jersey will not be forgiving.
Surprisingly, Palin, prior to adopting a highly partisan national role, was the stratospherically popular (93% approval) leader of the Last Frontier State. Here’s the thing, and it’s not a shocker: governors who put principle over party to get things done in their state tend to do well – really, really well. But it’s not quite bipartisanship that Palin and Christie got right – they are still Republicans – but it was their willingness to take on their own party that their constituents seem to have liked so much. Unlike party flippers like Arlen Specter and Charlie Crist, whose ambitions were soundly routed once they abandoned the GOP, Palin and Christie embraced the Republican brand – and, in independent-minded states, ran on – and delivered during their tenure – a better version of GOP leadership than their constituents had known before.
Before her vice presidential nomination, Palin faced a difficult election against a popular former Democratic governor in a state which, while it trends red nationally, is considerably less predictable on the state level – both its senators, for instance, are products of unthinkable upset victories against the GOP nominee. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, ran a rare successful write-in campaign, while Mark Begich, a Democrat, defeated an embattled state icon in Ted Stevens. Furthermore, campaigning in a state more than twice the size of Texas – without total road access as winter approaches in the Arctic – is perhaps as hard as it gets.
Palin’s victory was relatively narrow, but meaningful. That she proceeded to thoroughly take on the GOP establishment from the moment she walked into office until she got the call from John McCain was equally so. In opposition to a government addicted to heavy spending, she trimmed state spending as well as taxes – typical of a conservative. But her independent streak was notable: with the bipartisan ACES, she raised taxes on oil companies to give back more to Alaskans – separately, she also increased oversight. Furthermore, she refused to allow same-sex spouses of state employees to lose their benefits because of a new law (despite agreeing with the law in principle). All that makes her sound like a Democrat.
The elephant in the room, of course, is that Palin left office shortly after the ’08 election. Palin was right that she had to resign due to the newly polarized nature of her role, which immobilized her office and made it difficult to get things done. But Palin is not blameless for this – she chose to emphasize her conservative credentials to establish herself as a leader for the Republican Party. In essence, she became an establishment voice for the Tea Party Right. Having embraced a divisive national role, she found that her national baggage came back home with her.
What does this mean for Christie? If he goes national, Christie faces what other moderate GOPers have before, like Mitt Romney – a hard-right, unrelenting primary in which he will be forced to compromise principles in order to win the nomination. His chances have already been damaged by his eagerness to work with Obama and his unwillingness to give Romney free press. The Phoenix-like rise of the Bush brand, and the GOP’s too-eager pander-prone desire to boost Marco Rubio do not help the Christie case either. His chances, as of now, are slim – he is polling at 12% in Iowa. (Polls put Palin at around 10% in Iowa before she chose not to run. This was after a very successful 2010 for her.)
In the aftermath of 2012, Palin found it “perplexing” that Obama won. While parts of her argument may have been salient, such as about the federal debt, it rang hollow overall. If this was the pre-2008 Palin making the same comments, she would have sounded authoritative and credible. But people can no longer take her seriously. Commenting on Fox’s dollar after years of antagonism that belie her earlier record have diminished its power.
Palin’s first two years as governor still appear impressive. But the last four years of cheap shots and desperate, dishonest grabs for attention have diminished that time as governor. Much like Mitt Romney’s veering between moderation and severe conservatism, Palin’s words since holding office confuse and discomfit voters. If Christie tries for the GOP nod, he may leave highly bruised, not only nationally in a party that does not reward attacking it, but back home. If he wants to build a lasting legacy in the Garden State, he should keep that in mind.
Image credit: Jenn Grover, via Wikimedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Palin-McCainRallyWashingtonPA2008.jpg