Chris Christie: Loud, Arrogant, Successful

NJ Governor Chris Christie

In a period marked by the highest level of political polarization since the Civil War, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie seems to very much exemplify the divide.  His proponents, numerous both within the Garden State and without, highlight his fiscally responsible economic record, but also adore his charisma and his ability to relate to average Americans.  On the other hand, critics condemn his severe attacks on unions in the state, yet inevitably focus on his character as well, calling his manner combative and rude.

In his speech at the Brookings Institute on July 9, however, Christie explained how, in part because of his unique personality, he is actually able to overcome the partisan divide and pass legislation.  Although it would ultimately be unnecessary to emulate his demeanor, Christie’s fellow politicians would be wise to draw lessons from the governor’s admirable accomplishments during his brief tenure as governor thus far.

Early into his talk, Christie described the daunting situation he faced in 2009 when, as a U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, he was elected to serve as governor.  Even though New Jersey is the second wealthiest state in the union per capita, he was told that there was a serious budget shortfall, and it could not make payroll unless changes were made.  Arguing that the crisis occurred because of the 150 tax and fee increases made over the eight years prior to his election, Christie opted to right the ship with severe spending cuts.  George Will has dubbed the New Jersey governorship “America’s Caesar” for its exceptionally powerful constitutional powers, and Christie took advantage of them to cut $2.2 billion by executive order from every state department.  Predictably, he faced a fierce backlash in the Democrat-dominated legislature, but despite also vetoing an increase of the Millionaire’s Tax, he was able to pass his budget with Democratic votes.

These actions seem more indicative of a partisan Republican than a leader overcoming the political divide, but the bottom line is that he got things done.  Still, Christie faced serious challenges in his first six months, when many veteran politicians in the legislature tested him by trying to obstruct his objectives, such as a general tax cut.  As he explained, Christie faced two options: don’t work with them or realize the job is more important and keep trying.  This choice may seem obvious for an elected official, yet the 112th Congress, which Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein has deemed the worst in history, seems to have gone with the first option.  Christie argued that a governor needs to find space between his principles and getting things done – a compromise.  He did just this during his first term, and passed legislation capping property taxes, limiting the amount insurance arbitrators could be paid, and raising the retirement age, all with bipartisan support.

Accurately or not, Christie ascribed some of his political success to his personality.  He received a hostile reception when addressing a firefighters union after cutting their benefits, but the mood was somewhat brightened when he simply told them the truth about the situation: other candidates had continually promised the unions benefits they could never provide, especially in the current economic climate.  The governor gave his Sicilian mother the credit for his bluntness.  She advised Christie to share everything with the people who trust him with the most important job; to tell them what he thinks and never be a mystery.

At the same time, Christie is very often criticized precisely for his bluntness. The New Jersey Star-Ledger reports that, while New Jersey residents give him an impressive 54 percent approval rating, they responded that “the best two words to describe him are ‘bully’ and ‘arrogant.’” Indeed, he seems to have more detractors for his personality than his severe attacks on unions.  Many in the area may find incidents such as the loud verbal altercation caught on camera last week while eating ice cream endearing, but much of the rest of the country finds it rude and unbefitting of someone of his standing.  That is not to say that the criticism leveled against his policies is insignificant.  Gordon MacInnes, president of the non-partisan New Jersey Policy Perspectives,  has argued that the state’s financial situation is not nearly as stable as Christie makes it sound, as the government is not pulling in the level of revenue it needs to stay balanced fiscally.

Christie absolutely has serious flaws both in his personality and record, but his lessons on how to compromise politically without conceding one’s values are still directly pertinent to his fellow elected officials.  Politicians need to be able to get things done.  Sticking to one’s principles is often described as admirable, and in many ways it is, but this congress seems to be entirely made up of individuals who are totally unwilling to compromise.  Other lessons can be applied to the two contenders for the presidency in 2012.  Mitt Romney could benefit greatly from some of Christie’s bluntness, as he is far too much of a mystery to the voters.  In a recent Pew Research poll, only 32% of voters would call Romney “honest and truthful,” to 46% for Obama, while he also trails the president 28% to 59% on whether he “connects well with ordinary Americans.”  President Obama’s problem has more to do with his lack of success in accomplishing legislative goals, such as passing climate change legislation.  In Christie’s words, “Executives lead, legislatures persuade.”  Obama is simply too cautious, always concerned with how a risky decision could affect his reelection chances.  His true priorities were made public when he told then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in what he believed was a private conversation, that he would have a better chance only after his election at putting in place a potentially seminal agreement on missile defense with Russia. By taking more risks with his own party and the electorate, he would achieve considerably more.

Although politics on the national scene is very different from the state level, Christie has been an incredibly effective governor given the issues he faced upon entering the office and the brief period he occupied it.  If he can overcome some of his more negative personal qualities, he could make quite a compelling presidential candidate himself.