New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was under the national media’s microscope yesterday when he delivered his annual “State of the State” address in Trenton only days after the “Bridgegate” scandal broke. Christie responded with a restrained, intelligent speech that acknowledged that fiasco but concentrated on a reform agenda on taxes, crime, education, and other nuts-and-bolts issues that have endeared him to his state’s voters. These are the same topics he would have highlighted even if his political trajectory had not been jeopardized by last week’s revelations of his staff’s bizarre scheme to create traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge. So the address was a chance for Christie to get back on message and to show that he can still govern and do so in a manner that will bolster his reputation as an effective and innovative governor who can work with Democrats for the common good. Judged on its content and by the measured manner with which it was delivered, Christie did just that.
But there is no escaping the fact that the Christie who spoke yesterday was not quite the same guy who had become a national figure in the last year. As many observers noted, the governor’s manner was noticeably more restrained than it had been last year when he took a bow in Trenton in the wake of his successful efforts to help the state recover from Superstorm Sandy. Bluster and flamboyance were replaced by a more low-key approach that showed Christie was acutely conscious of the fact that he could no longer get away with a cavalier dismissal of critics who believe the Bridgegate misdeeds as well as the examples of the governor’s office exacting revenge on his foes were directly linked to his brusque and often arrogant style.
While the change of tone won’t stop Democrats, both in New Jersey and elsewhere, from making his life miserable investigating the scandal and seeking to undermine any efforts for bipartisan compromise, it does offer him a chance to start the difficult task of making the public forget about the nightmare of the last week. But it also raises the question of whether the new, less abrasive Christie will be as interesting and ultimately as much of a star as the old one. Based on yesterday’s evidence, the answer is not so much.
Christie’s rise to prominence in the last two years was not based as much on his ideas as his personality. He is just one among a number of successful reform-minded Republican governors who have sought new solutions to the deadly spiral of debt and taxes with which liberal big-government schemes have saddled their states. He deserves credit for making progress on these issues, especially in a blue state with a Democratic legislature. But as good as his record may be, it does not especially stand out when compared to the achievements of some of his peers who are also presidential possibilities, such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker or Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal.
What made Christie special was his demeanor. His lack of inhibition when telling people off and dismissing their criticisms was as refreshing as it was often politically incorrect. The YouTube videos of his town hall meetings and press conferences where he jousted with foes were entertaining because of his attitude, not the strength of his positions. Christie’s magic was based on the public’s delight in his brash manner and unfettered opinions, especially his penchant for blasting anyone who dared to question his ideas or motives. It was always an open question whether this Northeast everyman would play as well in flyover country as he did in the metropolitan New York media market, especially when his embrace of President Obama after the storm alienated many conservatives. But as long as he pulled no punches, Christie had little to worry about—a conclusion that was reinforced by a landslide reelection in which his support from women, Hispanics, and blacks seemed liked a preview of a GOP victory in 2016.
But shorn of the bluster and reduced to a calm advocate of good government, the new Chris Christie is not as interesting as the old one.
Having risen to the top of the polls of future Republican presidential contenders largely on the strength of being a media darling, it’s far from clear that the Christie who has been transformed in the space of a few days into a press piñata can stay afloat in the conversation about 2016. The problem is not only that he is taking a pounding from liberals who rightly feared him as the GOP’s best threat to derail a Hillary Clinton presidency. It’s that a Christie who is on the defensive and must now worry about appearing to be a bully will be hard-put to distinguish himself from other Republicans with similar ideas but without the baggage that the governor must now carry as he goes forward.
Unless Democrats and their press auxiliaries can dig up something that directly incriminates Christie in the bridge lane closings, he will survive this rough patch. Polls show he has retained, at least for the moment, his support in the state. But the chastened Chris Christie who must now adopt a more generous tone toward his foes is not the same man who rocketed to fame as the tough guy who wasn’t afraid to abuse the press or tell voters that it was none of their business where his kids went to school or what they did. Even if everyone forgets about the bridge a year or two from now (and given the Democratic interest in making sure we won’t, don’t expect that to happen) Christie can never be quite the same politician again. In some ways that might even turn out to be an improvement since a bit more humility and restraint when torching anyone who isn’t a cheerleader would be a good thing for the governor. But the Christie who emerges from this crisis isn’t the kind of candidate who is likely to become the Republican nominee in 2016.