What is the future of American conservatism?
That was the question at hand Monday afternoon at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, as the center’s “American Forum” host, Douglas Blackmon, spoke with former New Jersey governor and 2016 Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie.
Christie is the latest in a long line of politicians from both sides of the aisle who have appeared on “American Forum” with Blackmon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Miller Center faculty member, during the show’s run at the Miller Center. This will be the second-to-last episode of the PBS show after more than 40 years on air.
The series became known for its objective, nonpartisan and scholarly approach to politics as Blackmon consistently brought together key players on the national stage and historians, political scientists and other UVA and Miller Center scholars to discuss some of the nation’s most important issues.
Recent guests have included cable television host Joy Reid, former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates and, during the 2016 presidential campaign, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders and Republican candidate and Ohio governor John Kasich.
Students, faculty and members of the public filled the taping room to hear Christie on Monday. The hour-long conversation, set to air in Virginia on Feb. 25 and nationally on Feb. 28, focused on the future of the Republican Party and Christie’s connection to President Donald Trump’s administration.
The former governor, after dropping out of the 2016 race himself, surprised many Republicans by endorsing Trump and, for a time, leading the president-elect’s transition team. He is in regular communication with the president, whom he has known for 16 years, and recently chaired a commission on the nation’s opioid epidemic at Trump’s behest.
“The Republican Party is at a crucial juncture,” Blackmon said as he introduced Christie. “Party leaders and the president have broken from years of insistent stringency on spending limits and deficit reductions and instead embraced massive new budget increases, huge tax cuts and a new brand of economic populism.
“Is this a temporary deviation for the GOP, or is it the emergence of a profoundly different American conservatism? Few national figures have wrestled more directly with those competing visions of the Republican Party than our guest in this episode.”
Christie did not characterize current differences in the Republican Party as a struggle, but acknowledged there are competing viewpoints.
“I don’t see an act of struggle, but what I see is competing political and philosophical views that won’t be resolved, I think, until we have another election,” he told Blackmon.
The pair went on to discuss numerous issues that have been points of contention within both major parties and in the media, including the current immigration debate and special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Christie, a formal federal prosecutor, displayed his legal chops as he discussed the ongoing Russia investigation. He expressed confidence in Mueller, calling him “a very talented, tough, principled prosecutor,” and in Christopher Wray, the new director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He also said that judicial principles like due process and presumption of innocence should be respected.
“Everyone wants the answer right now,” Christie said, noting that he does not believe there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. “But I do think that process matters. We need to get to the right place, but we also need to get there in the right way. If we don’t, we diminish those institutions,” he said, referring to the presidency, the FBI and the judicial system.
He expressed concern about “a real loss of confidence and trust in our institutions – governmental, political and media.”
“Until we change that, it will be very difficult to achieve transformational change,” Christie said.
Blackmon also asked Christie about the Trump administration’s commission on opioid abuse, which he chaired in 2017. Christie grew animated as he outlined the administration’s commitment to battling addictions that claim more lives every day, noting that Trump’s brother had died of alcoholism, and that Christie’s own mother contracted lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking.
She did not, he said, encounter the same social stigma faced by opioid addicts. “Drug addiction is an illness that can be treated, and we have to treat it. We are ignoring it now and people are dying,” he said. “If we believe that every life is precious, and I do, then we have to give these people a second chance.”
At the end of the show, the discussion turned to Christie’s political future, which some speculate might include a role in the White House, now that his second term as governor has ended.
Christie was noncommittal, but said he would be surprised if he did not take on another public role at some point, after spending so much of his career in public service.
Blackmon concluded the show by thanking his “American Forum” audience for a long and successful run. The show will tape its final episode on Feb. 20 with UVA history professor William Hitchcock, author of the recently-released book “The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s.”
“I hope [the episodes] have been informative in an era of disinformation and promote constructive dialogue that otherwise would not have happened,” Blackmon said. “All of us here have enjoyed the ride with all of you.”
As “American Forum” ends, the Miller Center will launch a new series of public events called “The Miller Center Presents” to continue the center’s tradition of pairing national and global leaders with Miller Center and UVA scholars. Such events will continue to draw upon the center’s deep stable of historians, scholars and faculty members, as well as its wealth of primary sources, such as the decades of Oval Office recordings analyzed by the Presidential Recordings Program and the interviews of major figures from the Jimmy Carter administration onward compiled by the Presidential Oral Histories project.
The center also recently completed the First Year Project, analyzing the triumphs, failures and lessons learned from presidents’ first years in office. The project dovetailed with the 2016 election and concluded with a Jan. 25 panel analyzing President Donald Trump’s first year in office. A related project, The Presidency at a Crossroads, is now underway.