TRENTON — It’s an intimate story Gov. Chris Christie tells. Hours from her death in a St. Barnabas hospital room, his mother gripped his hand and said: “There’s nothing left unsaid between us.”
That is the way he governs, he explains, leaving nothing unsaid between him and his constituents.
The moving story, which never fails to draw deep, empathetic sighs, has become a fixture at the end of every of one of the town hall meetings the Republican governor has held across New Jersey.
“Here is the one thing I promise you, by the time we get to the end of my term, when 2013 comes, you’re not going to not know who I am,” Christie concludes. “You’re going to know who I am and what I believe and what I think and what I’m willing to stand for and fight for and what I’m not.”
But in dozens of appearances, news conferences and town hall meetings, there are several topics Christie refuses to discuss.
Asked, for example, if he personally agreed with creationism or evolution at a news conference last week, he answered, “None of your business.”
Will he defy the state Supreme Court if it rules against him and orders him to restore $1.7 billion in funds for poor school districts? When asked, he told a reporter to “buzz off,” and when pressed simply said “no comment.”
What about the state’s stringent gun control laws, a question that often arises at his town hall meetings? His stock response is that as long as the Legislature is controlled by Democrats, there is no changing the laws. But he never quite answers the question.
As for illegal immigration, a hot-button issue from New Jersey to Arizona, and Long Island to Morristown, Christie has said he supports a “common sense path to citizenship,” but he declines to elaborate, saying it is a federal issue.
And raising eyebrows from the Highlands to the Shore, Christie said last summer he was “skeptical” about some of the science promoting climate change theories. For now he hasn’t pulled the state out of the cap-and-trade program aimed at controlling emissions, which conservatives have asked him to do.
Political experts say taking a stand on these divisive issues could alienate either the increasingly influential right wing of a national Republican Party that considers Christie a star — or the far more moderate voters of New Jersey. A move one way or the other, they say, could hurt his chances on the national Republican stage, or to win re-election as governor.
“His position may really not be popular in his party,” said Stephen Medvic, a government professor at Franklin & Marshall College. “He has to walk on thin ice. There is no point picking a fight with (the Republican base). Unless he’s completely willing to say what they want to hear, he’s got to be careful. He wants to maintain as much support as he can from wherever he can get it.”
Christie’s silence could be because he doesn’t see issues like creationism and global warming as important, said Ben Dworkin, a professor at Rider University.
“We sometimes forget even politicians are entitled to their own views,” Dworkin said. “I don’t think the governor is always being political. I think sometimes he is just who he is.”
Or as Julian Zelizer, a professor at Princeton and a presidential scholar, observed, if Christie were to take a position opposite to his own views but popular in his base, it might appear disingenuous.
“There is always a risk of then appearing purely political,” Zelizer said. “He’s the honest, straight-talking politician. He says what he thinks. It would look like he’s just playing to the camera.”
Sooner or later, Zelizer said, Christie will be forced to clarify his positions on immigration and gun control.
“Those are widespread, major issues, in his home state and nationally, that’s a hard thing to avoid,” Zelizer said. “He’ll have to come down on where he stands on those two policies.”
The problem for Christie, as Zelizer sees it, is that the moderate electorate in New Jersey, where Christie will probably stand for re-election in 2013, might not respond well to an allegiance to social conservatives.
“By saying things that might play well in Alabama but don’t play so well in New Jersey, if he makes too many of those statements he opens himself up for a challenge,” he said. “That becomes a big problem for him. If he tries to become a Republican nominee, it will never be because he’s a Bible Belt conservative. He’s going to be a blue state Republican who’s tough on fiscal issues and tough on unions.”
Politicians have long made an art of refusing to answer questions, including presidents from Barack Obama to Ronald Reagan, who would famously gesture to reporters that he couldn’t hear them above the din of his presidential chopper.
Christie has done this before. During a disciplined campaign for governor, he often refused to provide specifics on many issues, which helped him avoid the mistakes of past New Jersey Republican candidates who staked out conservative views during the primary and were burned by them during the general election.
Montclair State University political science professor Brigid Harrison noted that former Gov. Christie Whitman flirted with the idea of seeking national office, but it was clear from the start that her views on abortion would make her unelectable in Republican primaries.
“This is kind of the bane of many Republicans in the state of New Jersey, what is considered conservative in New Jersey is moderate in the rest of the country,” Harrison said. “It’s in his best interest to deflect, deflect and deflect as long as possible.”
Christie won’t say why he won’t answer questions about these subjects, and his office declined to comment Friday on any of the specific issues or his reason for not saying what he thinks about them.