The Spectator has always offered a big tent under which a variety of views have flourished. Our new department, TEN PACES, aims to further the debate by asking a divisive question of two conservatives with opposing views. First up, the record and political fortunes of one Chris Christie.
A Rude Awakening
by Wlady Pleszczynski
“HE DOESN’T GIVE a s— what people think,” a Republican “close” to Chris Christie told Politico after the governor denounced the Republican House and Speaker Boehner (yes, by name) for voting down a pork-laden aid bill in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. We pretty much knew Christie felt that way, though it was good to see it confirmed in writing. The bigger question, one that should concern Christie, is what people think about him.
We know he’s home safe in New Jersey, cruising toward re-election this November as he enjoys high approval numbers, a whittled Democratic opposition he himself helped weaken, and growing celebrity among those who care about such things. The problem for him is that almost nothing he’s done to win New Jersey can translate into a winning national Republican candidacy, let alone one that conservatives could in any way trust.
For one thing, there is glaring fact of his New Jerseyness. Big, fat, coarse, he’s forever pushing his weight around, playing the wise guy or the charmer, always insisting on being the center of attention (unless Barack Obama comes calling), the big shot in a small place, the son of a “Sicilian” (not Italian) mother, as he said at the Tampa convention. He may not know better. He’s never really lived and worked anywhere else. How someone this provincial can be said to have national ambitions is a mystery.
By now most everyone knows Christie has attended 130 concerts by that prince of New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen, can recite all of his lyrics, and never seemed to mind that the harshly progressive Springsteen wouldn’t give him time of day—at least not until after a post-Sandy benefit just days before the election when, according to Christie, Springsteen hugged him and said, “It’s official, we’re friends.” After that, the New York Times’ Kate Zernike reported, “the governor said he went home and wept.” (Ridi, Pagliaccio!)
The Times story has an even happier ending. On election eve, President Obama called Christie from Air Force One and told him there was someone who wanted to speak with him. Next thing he heard, “Governor, this is Bruce.” Who needs the IRS to clinch an election when one has Chris Christie?
And yes, there’s no way to sugarcoat Christie’s betrayal of his own party’s candidate a week before Election Day. It’s one thing to act professionally when disaster strikes and the president comes calling. But did Christie essentially have to blow Romney off while repeatedly praising Obama as “incredibly supportive,” and “outstanding,” or to say the president deserved “great credit” and call theirs “a great working relationship”? I won’t describe the body language conveyed during their joint appearances, beyond noting that Christie later said he was pinching himself to be aboard Marine One.
In short, with a critical national election just hours away, a rising GOP star could not have cared less how well his party’s ticket did. Worse, he was totally untroubled that for all intents he had endorsed the other party’s guy. If there’s any comfort in understanding that he did so, it’s that it closes the book on Christie’s horrendous keynote address at the 2012 Republican convention, in which he did not mention Messrs. Romney and Ryan until the two-thirds point. If not for primetime-related pressures, he probably would have spent even longer that night talking himself up, setting in motion his run for the 2016 nomination.
Has he done any party-building? No doubt he thinks he did by naming a crony, a Republican, to warm the seat of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg until a special election can be held in October to return it to the Democrats. That way he made sure his friend Cory Booker won’t be on the ticket in November to eat into his own margin of victory. God knows the GOP is the weak sister of New Jersey politics, but Christie has made sure he’s the only Republican in the state who might benefit from his tenure. At this stage, the bang-up job he did in the first year of his governorship, confronting public employees unions and their Democratic handlers and cutting back onerous property taxes, is long forgotten. He flirted with a presidential run in the 2012 cycle and doubtless enjoyed the urging many leading players and big donors gave him to join the race. But that was before he failed his two big tests, and nothing since Obama’s reelection has restored his fleeting promise.
Otherwise serious and smart conservatives often fall prey to wishful thinking, hoping against hope that they’ve found a sure-fire winner. Remember their reactions to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s victory in California? Many were ready to amend the Constitution to allow him to run for president. Rick Perry, a more dependable conservative, they turned into a political colossus. At least he represented a big state. But the governor of New Jersey? Even the Wall Street Journal, which has done its part to champion Christie, saw right through him leading up to his first election. “Chris Christie’s Empty Campaign” was the headline of its editorial on October 2, 2009.
At last report, Christie was picking fights with the GOP’s insurgent Rand Paul wing, joining the chorus of militant moderates who’ve lost any interest in taking the fight to Obama and his Democrats. On a sadder note, Christie has gone under the knife in an effort to curtail his appetite. Whatever his political future, it’s hard to imagine we’ll ever see him again stuffing donuts into his mouth on the David Letterman show.
Our Neutron Bomb
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-election 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.