Politics makes for strange bedfellows. So, apparently, does entrepreneurial stardom.
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is a fan of President Barack Obama and a social liberal in the sense that his company provides a forum for freewheeling communication and for the formation of new groups of any persuasion. Yet he also announced plans to host a February fundraiser for New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who presumably has presidential ambitions he may act on as early as 2016.
It might seem like an odd pairing, since Silicon Valley tends to lean Democratic, and Zuckerberg has expressed support in the past for stalwart Dems such as Newark Mayor Cory Booker. But his support for Christie may have less to do with politics than appearances suggest.
It's easy to detect similarities between the two men, even if they represent different coasts, belong to different generations and connote a Mutt-and-Jeff contrast when imagined standing next to each other. The first similarity is their interest in education.
Zuckerberg—worth nearly $10 billion, according to Forbes—made education the focus of his first big philanthropic effort, a $100 million grant to help improve the school system in Newark, one of the nation's most impoverished cities. Christie has tackled education reform in other ways, by forcing reforms that make teachers more accountable for their students' performance and allowing kids to transfer out of failing schools. Christie has also wrung concessions out of unions that other governors can only envy.
Similarities between Zuckerberg and Christie may go well beyond an interest in education policy. Both men have shown a centrist's tendency to put pragmatism over ideology, the type of approach popular with independents who now outnumber both Democrats and Republicans. Christie showed this in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy last fall, which he appeared side-by-side with Obama and praised the president's response to the disaster just a few days before the 2012 election. Some Republicans griped that Christie helped Obama gain a last-minute edge that put him over the top on Election Day.
Christie also blasted fellow Republicans in the House of Representatives when they delayed action on a huge relief bill that was meant to help victims of Sandy. Christie's fierce defense of his state and his famous barb about "why the American people hate Congress" blew apart the idea that he's a conventional, toe-the-line Republican, adding to his reputation for independence and overall popularity.
Zuckerberg, as a business leader, must be pragmatic, but he is showing himself to be post-partisan as well. His electoral registration in California, where he lives, lists no party preference, according to the Wall Street Journal. By aligning himself with prominent politicians in both parties, Zuckerberg may manage to end up well-connected in Washington at the same time he's viewed as apolitical, which is as close to a win-win strategy as a business leader can get.
Zuckerberg and Christie may have one other thing in common: a deep disdain for establishmentarianism and business-as-usual bureaucrats. Zuckerberg will go down in history as a famous upstart who quit Harvard, was present at the creation of the social media phenomenon and became a billionaire in the process. He may yet upend establishment standard-bearers such as Google and Yahoo! (disruptive upstarts themselves not long ago).
Christie's formative years were more conventional, as he earned a law degree and starting working his way up in GOP political circles. As governor, however, his outspoken views have been a breath of fresh air even to detractors, and by attacking public-sector unions, he has shown more courage than most state politicians. He could arguably run for president as both a conservative—essential in the primaries—and a centrist able to win independent votes in the general election.
If Christie ever does run for president, Mark Zuckerberg might not vote for him. But if Christie were to win, he'd probably answer Zuckerberg's phone calls when they came through the White House switchboard.
Rick Newman's latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.