5 reasons Chris Christie's best days are over: Moran
on January 19, 2014 at 7:00 AM, updated January 20, 2014 at 11:15 AM
For presidents and governors, second terms tend to be deflating. Bill Clinton was impeached. George W. Bush was despised. And Obama is stumbling.
The question now is whether Gov. Chris Christie can break the curse in the run-up to the 2016 presidential campaign. And the bad news for him, and for New Jersey, is that his odds are extremely long.
"He is a lame duck the day he gets sworn in," says Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), the governor’s partner on every big achievement during the first term.
That day arrives Tuesday. And the forecast in Trenton is for a stretch of ineffective government, distracted by scandal and locked in partisan stalemates.
If that proves true, Christie’s pitch as a bipartisan problem solver is going to fall flat in Iowa and New Hampshire. And New Jersey’s problems will only fester.
So let’s take a closer look. Here are five reasons Christie’s second term will be a pale imitation of his first.
1. Bridgegate. Five separate investigations are underway, three of them directed by elected Democrats who dream about bringing home the Big Dog’s scalp.
This will take months and it can only get worse for Christie. With the latest round of subpoenas, the Legislature’s gaze has moved from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey directly to the governor’s senior circle. His chief of staff. His chief counsel. His two senior communications staffers.
Christie could fight those subpoenas, but then he’d look like Richard Nixon. Roughly two-thirds of New Jerseyans already believe that Christie’s senior aides deliberately caused the infamous traffic jam as political revenge. Those numbers will get much worse if the governor stonewalls.
He may do just that if he believes the subpoenaed documents contain damaging information. Because Christie is toast if evidence emerges that he lied when he said he knew nothing about the lane closures and did not participate in the cover-up.
2. The bully problem. The truth is that Christie’s bullying helps make him effective. Political players are afraid to cross him because they know he will impose punishment.
When Sen. Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) ignored the governor’s strategic advice during the 2013 legislative campaign, Christie tried to have him removed as minority leader. When Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop refused to endorse him, Christie’s Cabinet members all canceled planned meetings with him. When the late Rutgers Professor Alan Rosenthal sided with Democrats over legislative redistricting, Christie cut $169,000 from his budget. The list goes on and on.
But after Bridgegate, that kind of behavior will reinforce the image of Christie as a Jersey bully. Already the scandal has hurt him in a matchup against Hillary Clinton. An NBC-Marist poll showed the two neck and neck a month ago, but now shows Christie trailing by 13 points.
Look for more of the kinder, gentler Christie we saw at his marathon Jan. 9 news conference when he declared, "I am not a bully."
But can he be effective without his hammer?
3. New Jersey is broke. The pension and health reform of 2010 remains Christie’s landmark achievement. But it has a dark side. It requires the state to make enormous payments into the pension funds to make up for years of neglect by Christie’s predecessors.
Those payments are $1.7 billion this year and will balloon to more than $5 billion in 2018.
Wall Street is not convinced that New Jersey can do it and has lowered the state’s bond rating on Christie’s watch.
In his State of the State address Tuesday, Christie hinted that Wall Street might be right: He suggested punting on at least some of these pension payments, a move that Democrats who risked their political necks to support the reform regard as a betrayal.
Meanwhile, Christie has drained funds he inherited that were earmarked for open space and transportation projects without proposing a method to replenish them.
So while he signed big tax cuts during his first term, he won’t be able to during his second. Any new initiatives, like his plan to expand the school day and school year, only add to the pressure.
4. Bipartisan ground is shrinking. In his first term, Christie found enormous common ground with Democrats, especially on cost-cutting and education. Pension and health reform. A tax cap. New rules for union bargaining. Tenure reform. The Rutgers University merger.
But the bank has run dry. Christie hasn’t even proposed reforms of that magnitude since the Rutgers merger in the summer of 2012.
Trenton looks more and more like Washington these days. A stalemate over the Supreme Court has stalled Christie’s nominees, leaving two vacancies. The governor’s vetoes of gay marriage and minimum wage were broken only when the courts and voters intervened. And if Christie does short the pension fund, count on a bitter and explosive partisan fight.
Both sides now have political reasons to move apart. Sweeney has ambitions to run for governor and needs to move left to shore up his support among the Democratic base. Christie needs to move right to compete in the GOP presidential primaries.
5. Staff chaos. Almost everyone in Christie’s inner circle has been subpoenaed over Bridgegate. His nomination of Kevin O’Dowd as attorney general is on hold until his role in the scandal is clarified.
His incoming chief of staff, Regina Egea, is implicated in the released emails. Bill Stepien, the manager of both Christie gubernatorial campaigns, is disgraced and gone.
And so are Christie’s two top appointees at the Port Authority, Bill Baroni and David Wildstein.
Several Cabinet members typically leave during the start of second terms, so add them to this list.
So while Christie’s team was buff and eager during his first term, it’s beaten and bruised this time.
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To be fair, Christie scored big wins in his first term, so it’s unrealistic to expect him to match that. "After we did pension reform (in 2010), we knew it was never getting better than that," says Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Essex).
But this could be a real nosedive. At least we have probably seen the best of Gov. Wrecking Ball.