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Is Christie Abandoning His True Base?

Chris Christie is riding high these days. The New Jersey governor has gotten strong marks for his handling of Hurricane Sandy and he set Twitter afire last week with his characteristically freewheeling indictment of his fellow Republicans' failure to approve a storm aid package in Congress. Cory Booker, the superstar mayor of Newark, is ducking a challenge of Christie, leaving a clear path for his reelection this fall. Veteran political journalist Ron Fournier is declaring Christie "presidential timber" and Time magazine put him on its cover as the "The Boss," an oh-so-subtle comparison to the Jersey rock star whom Christie unrequitedly adores.

But there have been a few significant exceptions to this adulation. First, there was Rupert Murdoch's warning shortly after the storm that Christie needed to cool it with the warm words for President Obama. More recently, Christie's been repeatedly chided in the pages of the Wall Street Journal for his righteous demands for federal aid. From (Jersey native) Dan Henninger's column Thursday:

The spectacle was irresistible. The Republican Party, exhausted by the fiscal-cliff fiasco, was hanging on the ropes, and here was party hero Chris Christie flying off the turnbuckles to crush John Boehner. The New York Times pumped the tale of betrayal to the top of its front page. "Fury in G.O.P. as House Stalls Hurricane Aid. Northeast Republicans Lash Out at Boehner." Google searchers were directed to "watch Peter King explode at his own party." Make no mistake, Gov. Christie has just delivered his second poison pill to a major GOP candidacy: Any Republican who runs in New York City's mayoral campaign this November will have the governor's GOP-sellout statements thrown in his face.
Problem is, in virtually every respect, the betrayal story is wrong. House Republicans on the Appropriations Committee have been working for weeks to move a ton of money to the devastated Northeast. Indeed, within a day of learning more about this effort, Peter King, no shrinking violet, walked back his initial comments about Mr. Boehner and the party. But Gov. Christie was back for more Tuesday in his State of the State speech: "New Jersey, both Republicans and Democrats, will never stand silent when our citizens are being short-changed."
Chris Christie's efforts to pull New Jersey back from its cliff and restore economic growth have been the basis for his aggressive governing style. Then Sandy hit New Jersey and New York, states whose public "commitments" could barely be supported on a sunny day. Now a widely admired governor's politics is being transformed into something pretty run-of-the mill.

Now, it might not seem surprising that, as Christie garners more support from the mainstream media, swing voters, and even Democrats for his post-Sandy performance that he would get guff from Republicans. That's certainly the case with the grumbling you heard from Republicans around the country as soon as Christie made nice with Obama after the storm. Many of these Republicans have been unsure what to make of this brash, Muslim-defending northeastern governor to begin with, so it's not unexpected that they would be cool to his latest act.

What is notable about the sharp words from the likes of Murdoch and Henninger, though, is that they were, until very recently, elements of his strongest base of support: the nexus of the Wall Street financier/New York conservative intellectual elite who loved Christie for his combination of tough-minded anti-union, budget-cutting rhetoric and urbane social moderation. Christie gave a big speech at the Manhattan Institute, the think tank for New York conservatives. His moves to cut union benefits in New Jersey won rave reviews in Murdoch's Journal. His presidential prospects were touted loudest of all by Paul Singer, the billionaire hedge-fund manager who is a major backer of the Manhattan Institute, and Ken Langone, the billionaire Home Depot founder. The affection for Christie among conservative-leaning New York financiers was so strong that many of them were deeply disappointed by his decision not to run for president and had trouble ginning up similar enthusiasm for their fellow financier Mitt Romney, as I reported last year after speaking with a senior partner at a Midtown firm:

Romney is from Boston and abjures the macho, profane shtick in which the hedge fund guys like to traffic. Their idol is Chris Christie, the tough guy across the river. Former Official A recently met with a major hedge fund executive who was “waxing poetic” about the New Jersey governor. “It’s the great man theory of history,” the former official says. “They believed Obama was a great man, and—lo and behold—Washington is a complicated place, and they blame it all on him, and now they believe it’s going to be a former prosecutor who’s going to solve all their dreams.”

But this same Christie let them down by declining to run for president, and now he's really let them down by cozying up to Obama and then making a very strong, very high-profile articulation for why functioning government matters and why Ayn Rand isn't much good in a hurricane. One could argue that this turnabout serves Christie's admirers right: They loved him for his bluster when it was unleashed against those they scorn, like the teachers' unions, but bluster can of course easily change direction, and now they're getting it in the face. Will the winds shift again and the bonds be repaired? Dan Isaacs, the chairman of the Manhattan Republican Party, told me he thinks so: "Listen, no one agree with everyone 100 percent of the time. Look, he’s doing his job, he’s advocating for his state, which was devastated by the storm." 

Surely some of those in the upper echelons of Christie's former fan club of New York conservatives will rationalize his recent behavior in those terms. But some may not. After all, it was Henninger's colleague at the Journal, Holman Jenkins Jr., who seemed to think that Sandy didn't even rank as a major disaster in the first place. Sandy's effects, he wrote in his first column after the storm, amounted to "weather-related mishaps." If only we had been able to get a reporter to ask Chris Christie about that.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis