by Matt Purple
ANY EVALUATION OF Chris Christie’s presidential fitness must begin with one of his betrayals—not of conservatives, but of a powerful New Jersey Democrat.
Christie had just signed a suite of pension and healthcare reforms into law, with the Democratic president of the state senate, Steve Sweeney, standing behind him. But the budget was coming due and the only one on Christie’s desk, approved by Sweeney’s legislature, was chock full of waste. So Christie returned to his office, dug out Sweeney’s budget, uncapped his line-item veto pen, crossed off $900 million in Democrat-supported spending—including tax credits for the working poor, women’s health care, and AIDS treatment—and signed it into law. Sweeney was flabbergasted. He called Christie a “rotten prick” and said he “wanted to punch him in the head.” Christie was unapologetic. The budget was balanced.
Since then, Christie has somehow gained a reputation as a moderate Republican, the sort of milquetoast mush-plate who makes Joe Scarborough’s zipper-fleece seem extra-cozy, and whose name is used as a safeword by GOP bigwigs. Likewise, many conservatives who were once enamored with Christie (Glenn Beck used to call his rants “common sense porn”) can now barely stand the sight of him.
Some of this is deserved. Any evaluation of Chris Christie’s presidential fitness must also grant that some of his actions have been inexcusable. He grew naively intimate with President Obama after Hurricane Sandy. His attack on House Republicans for trying to eliminate waste in the disaster relief bill was petulant. His speech at the 2012 Republican convention was self-serving. He can be impulsive and vindictive, the political equivalent of a neutron bomb—you lob him into a capital city and then run for your life in the opposite direction.
But what can’t be ignored, and what’s illustrated so well by his strip-mining of Sweeney’s budget, is that Christie’s explosions have redounded to the benefit of conservatives, blowing apart New Jersey’s Democrat establishment and creating a new political paradigm in one of the nation’s bluest states. Christie may be a neutron bomb, but he’s our neutron bomb, and beneath all the wires and fuses is a solid core of conservative principles that deserves national recognition.
Christie’s reforms speak for themselves. He was elected governor in 2009 facing a $1 billion budget hole. He promptly declared a fiscal state of emergency and would balance the budget over the next four years, as is required by New Jersey’s constitution. While he did scale back some tax credits, he never signed an actual tax hike into law. He reduced the cap on the state’s annual property-tax increases from 4 percent to 2 percent; in 2011 this resulted in the smallest hike of that tax since 1992. He vetoed three consecutive attempts by the legislature to slap a new tax on millionaires.
Christie’s most visible crusade was against the state’s public-sector labor apparatus. Unafraid to target teachers, considered suffering servants in politically correct mythology and untouchable political risks in blue states, Christie pushed for school boards to freeze teacher pay and require that education employees contribute more to their healthcare benefits. He ultimately approved a series of reforms that will save the state $120 billion over 30 years in pension funding, and $3.1 billion over 10 years in health care costs. This victory, and Christie’s endless verbal attacks, left the state’s mega-unions reeling. A year later, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), one of the most powerful unions in the country, would collaborate with Christie to overhaul teacher tenure. These days, the Asbury Park Press describes the NJEA as “quieted.”
Christie’s reforms have helped New Jersey defy the stagnant job market. On his watch, the state has added 130,000 private-sector jobs and has seen its best job growth in 12 years. Jersey’s unemployment rate is also dropping at a rate not seen since the 1970s.
Economic conservatives do occasionally make inroads in Northeast states, usually when the local plutocrat population blearily realizes that years of progressive mismanagement have left the neighborhood hedge fund on the verge of sinking into the ocean. But to be a social conservative is another thing entirely, and here Christie measures up. He defunded Planned Parenthood four years in a row, vetoed a bill legalizing gay marriage in favor of a referendum, and condemned the Supreme Court’s decision striking down DOMA as an act of “judicial supremacy.” This is not the behavior of a moderate squish.
Maybe my sympathy for Christie comes from my own blue-state upbringing. My native Connecticut is currently in the gubernatorial clutches of a quivering technocrat by the name of Dannel Malloy, last seen getting booed for his incompetence at a minor-league baseball game. Christie may very well have been in the stands jeering along with them; after Malloy announced he was raising taxes, Christie said he would be “waiting at the border to take Connecticut’s jobs when he does it.” His geography was off, but his economics have been vindicated. Last year, New Jersey added 66,400 new jobs while Connecticut added 8,600.
Yet Christie’s most remarkable accomplishment may be political. He’s up for re-lection this year and is currently leading his union-endorsed Democratic opponent—remember, this is New Jersey—by 32 points. Mock his doughnuts and his Letterman appearances all you like, but that exhibitionism has swayed independents and Democrats, resulting in about as potent a political brand as the GOP has ever seen in the Northeast.
Can that brand retain its luster east of the Appalachians? It seems so. A recent PPP survey finds Christie polling better against Hillary Clinton than any other potential Republican challenger. That list of challengers is long and includes several candidates I find far more palatable. But the question here is whether Christie merits consideration, and I think he must. Selecting a conservative candidate means examining that candidate’s entire record, not blowing him up the second he crosses an ideological trip wire.
Christie shrank New Jersey’s government, bruised its formidable Democratic machine, stayed conservative despite the risks, and won legions of converts. For that, he deserves a microphone on the debate stage—even if we have to turn down the volume a bit.
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