How Chris Christie Lost His Way

He spent so much time focused on winning over Democrats, he forgot what made his governorship significant in the first place.

US President Barack Obama walks with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (L) after arriving on Air Force One at Joint Base McGuire-Dix in New Jersey on May 28, 2013. Obama is traveling to the New Jersey shore to view rebuilding efforts following last year's Hurricane Sandy. 
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
Jan. 15, 2014, midnight

It’s easy to for­get now, but New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie was a hero to the Right dur­ing his first year in of­fice. He be­came a fisc­ally con­ser­vat­ive icon for push­ing through a budget that fo­cused on spend­ing cuts, par­tic­u­larly to a bloated pub­lic sec­tor. The gov­ernor tackled en­ti­tle­ments, re­du­cing bil­lions in sched­uled pen­sion pay­ments. And he made his mark as an edu­ca­tion re­former, ag­gress­ively chal­len­ging teach­ers’ uni­ons, call­ing for elim­in­at­ing ten­ure, and pro­pos­ing mer­it pay for top teach­ers.

It was this phase of the Christie gov­ernor­ship that put him on the na­tion­al polit­ic­al map. His zest for polit­ic­al theat­er along with his com­mit­ment to con­ser­vat­ive prin­ciples in a re­li­ably Demo­crat­ic state had some Re­pub­lic­ans pin­ing for him to run for pres­id­ent in 2012. Early na­tion­al polls showed him as pop­u­lar with the tea-party wing of the GOP as among mod­er­ates. Any dis­com­fort over his more-mod­er­ate po­s­i­tion on gun con­trol and im­mig­ra­tion was over­shad­owed by his cha­risma and zeal in at­tack­ing his lib­er­al crit­ics.

But at some point, he re­placed his de­vo­tion to policy with a de­vo­tion to reelec­tion. The cult of Christie went in­to over­drive after Hur­ricane Sandy hit, when he de­veloped a polit­ic­ally be­ne­fi­cial al­li­ance with Pres­id­ent Obama: Praise the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment’s hand­ling of the re­cov­ery and re­ceive ample fed­er­al fund­ing. Obama got a reelec­tion boost while Christie used that epis­ode to be­gin his re­lent­less court­ship of Demo­crat­ic al­lies in pre­par­a­tion for 2013.

Al­most sim­ul­tan­eously, he began at­tack­ing con­ser­vat­ive ele­ments of his own party, know­ing they polled par­tic­u­larly poorly in New Jer­sey. He en­joyed tak­ing shots at tea-party Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress who were con­cerned about the level of fed­er­al spend­ing ap­pro­pri­ated for storm re­lief. He ap­poin­ted an in­ter­im sen­at­or who didn’t want to run to fill the late Sen. Frank Lauten­berg’s seat, al­low­ing Demo­crat Cory Book­er to win elec­tion without ser­i­ous op­pos­i­tion. Be­fore the storm, he irked Rom­ney al­lies with a self-in­dul­gent con­ven­tion key­note ad­dress with sparse men­tions of his party’s pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee.

There’s noth­ing un­usu­al about mov­ing to the middle as reelec­tion ap­proaches — that’s com­mon for politi­cians in both parties. What’s re­mark­able about Christie, though, is that the scan­dal now threat­en­ing his polit­ic­al fu­ture was borne of his ob­ses­sion with win­ning Demo­crat­ic sup­port. Christie was already coast­ing to a second term when his staff pres­sured Demo­crat­ic may­ors for en­dorse­ments that were needed only to run up the score and build his bi­par­tis­an brand.

“He real­izes he’s pop­u­lar be­cause he’s the Re­pub­lic­an who hates the rest of the Re­pub­lic­an Party and loves the me­dia crack off of that,” said Re­pub­lic­an me­dia strategist Rick Wilson, a Christie crit­ic. “Christie could have ac­know­ledged the pres­id­ent’s help dur­ing Sandy without go­ing out of his way to make it polit­ic­ally pain­ful for Mitt Rom­ney. There’s something to be said for wear­ing the team jer­sey and stick­ing up for the team.”

Bi­par­tis­an­ship is a wel­come ton­ic for polit­ic­al grid­lock, but Team Christie viewed it as a tool for his reelec­tion, with his staff link­ing sup­port for his can­did­acy to prom­ises of eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment. In a state where ma­chine polit­ics still runs rampant, it’s not par­tic­u­larly sur­pris­ing. But for a can­did­ate with pres­id­en­tial as­pir­a­tions, the whole epis­ode sounds more out of The Sop­ranos than ef­fect­ive state gov­ern­ment.

These scan­dals are so dam­aging to Christie’s pres­id­en­tial am­bi­tions be­cause they hit at the heart of what an­im­ates the tea-party move­ment: con­cern over gov­ern­ment over­reach. Tea-party-aligned Re­pub­lic­ans have cri­ti­cized the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and Re­pub­lic­ans alike over ear­mark­ing, waste­ful spend­ing, and cronyism. Now Christie’s ad­min­is­tra­tion has giv­en an all-too-vivid il­lus­tra­tion of the dangers of out-of-con­trol gov­ern­ment. Even if Christie had no dir­ect con­nec­tion to the George Wash­ing­ton Bridge scan­dal, it’s be­com­ing clear that his ad­min­is­tra­tion reveled in a play-to-pay cul­ture where his gov­ern­ment wiel­ded out­sized in­flu­ence in pick­ing win­ners and losers.

With Christie polit­ic­ally wounded, many now dis­miss the idea that Christie was ever a top-tier can­did­ate for the pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion. But Re­pub­lic­ans have reg­u­larly shown a will­ing­ness to nom­in­ate can­did­ates who de­vi­ate from con­ser­vat­ive or­tho­doxy, from Mitt Rom­ney (2012) and John Mc­Cain (2008) to George H.W. Bush (1988). Even George W. Bush cam­paigned on a com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­vat­ism mes­sage as a subtle re­buke to the more-con­ser­vat­ive forces in Con­gress at the time.

Christie’s path to the pres­id­ency was run­ning as a straight-talk­ing out­sider who ac­com­plished a num­ber of con­ser­vat­ive re­forms in a blue state. He still may have a shot. But in his zeal to raise his na­tion­al pro­file, he lost what pro­pelled him in­to the spot­light in the first place. It’s be­com­ing harder to ima­gine Re­pub­lic­an voters will be eager to trade in Wash­ing­ton wheel­ers-and-deal­ers for the Trenton vari­ety in 2016.

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