“Those are the facts and those are the numbers,” he concluded, still staring at the woman. “So you can be upset about the fact that I’m unwilling to write a blank check for people to allow them to spend the people of New Jersey’s money however they want … [but] I’m not having the taxpayers of the State of New Jersey pick up that tab. I’m not doing it. Elections have consequences, and this is the philosophy I espoused in the election. And in three years, everyone’s going to have the opportunity to judge me up or down. And if there’s more people who feel like I haven’t done a good job, they’ll kick me out. And if there’s more that feel like I do, they’ll keep me in.” Christie shrugged his shoulders. “But in the end, I’m not making my decisions based on that.”
Sure enough, the next day the moment was on YouTube, gaining hits by the hour.
These are strange days for Republicans. After their historic midterm victories, they are seemingly ascendant, with George Will hailing 2010 as “conservatism’s best year in 30 years—since the election of Ronald Reagan.” And yet there is no Reagan-like figure to lead them. In Congress, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are Establishmentarians ill-suited to the fervor of the times. The Republicans who are currently angling to run for the White House in 2012—Mitch Daniels, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, John Thune, to name a few—inspire little enthusiasm. Sarah Palin, the one potential presidential candidate who does get Republican pulses racing, is such a polarizing figure that the party Establishment is terrified she’ll run. At the very moment that the GOP appears poised to return from its short sojourn in the political wilderness, the party is desperately searching for a leader. Which explains conservatives’ serious—and sudden—infatuation with Chris Christie.
His own ascendancy has been an unlikely one. A lobbyist and political hack who parlayed his fund-raising for George W. Bush into an appointment as New Jersey’s U.S. Attorney, Christie didn’t wow anyone with his 2009 gubernatorial campaign, which was impressive mostly for its lack of content. He promised to cut spending and taxes but adamantly refused to offer any specifics as to how he planned to do so, leading many to assume that he wouldn’t. Running in a three-way race, he won 49 percent of the vote largely because of who he was not—namely the unpopular and hapless Democratic incumbent, Jon Corzine. Even the Wall Street Journal editorial page, where seldom is heard a discouraging word about Republican politicians, predicted that Christie would “arrive in Trenton with a mandate to do what he campaigned on—nothing.”
But Christie, 48, has upended those expectations. In January, on his first full day in office, he announced that although the Corzine administration had projected a $500 million surplus, New Jersey was actually facing a more than $1 billion deficit in the budget that ran through June, which he would later revise to $2.2 billion. By March, the state would be broke. “The Democrats in New Jersey, they were rubbing their hands with glee,” Christie recalled in a recent speech. “ ‘This guy promised on the campaign not to raise taxes, he’s gonna have to do it now, he’s gonna have to do it immediately.’ And they couldn’t wait.”
In February, Christie appeared before a joint session of the Legislature to deliver an emergency address about the budget. The tradition in Trenton has long been for the governor to provide legislators with an advance copy of any speech to a joint session. But Christie recognizes the value in holding information close, so when legislators showed up for Christie’s emergency budget address, they found no speeches sitting on their desks. “That was the first time that ever happened,” Senate president Steve Sweeney told me one recent afternoon in his office behind the Senate chamber. “It was really over the top.” The effect was more than just theatrics. Standing before the astonished Democrats, Christie announced that he was circumventing the Legislature by signing an executive order to impound more than $2 billion in unspent funds for local school districts, hospitals, and public transit—thereby bringing the budget into balance. “It was a sucker punch,” Barbara Buono, the Senate majority leader, says. Christie would probably dispute the sucker part of that characterization, but not the punch. “When I left the joint session of the Legislature, they were dizzy,” he now boasts. “They didn’t know what to do.”
Christie continued to keep the Democrats off-balance during negotiations over the next year’s budget. In March, he went before another joint legislative session to present a $29.3 billion spending plan that made sweeping cuts to state government while not renewing a one-year income-tax surcharge on people making more than $400,000. “Mark my words today: If a tax increase is sent to my desk, I will veto it,” Christie pledged. Two months later, after Democrats passed legislation renewing the surcharge, he did. Then he dared the Democrats to put the surcharge renewal in their budget legislation—which, because he pledged not to sign such a budget, would cause a government shutdown. “I said to them, ‘Listen, here’s the deal,’ ” Christie recalls. “ ‘If you close it down, I’m going to get in those black Suburbans out front, I’m going to ride back to the governor’s residence, I’m going to go upstairs, I’m going to order a pizza, I’m going to open a beer, and I’m going to turn on the Mets. And whenever you decide to reopen the government, give me a call and let me know.’ ” The Democrats caved—ultimately allowing the Republicans to sponsor their own budget bill and move it through the Legislature. “Governor Christie got the Democrats to basically abdicate their role as the majority party in the Legislature,” says Jay Webber, an assemblyman and the GOP state chairman. “Despite our being in the minority, we effectively controlled the budget debate. It was remarkable.”