The Answer Is No

Photo: Marco Grob

Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, was trolling for clicks.

It was a weekday morning in late October, and he was standing on the stage of the Moorestown Community House, where he was hosting a town-hall meeting. Ostensibly, Christie was visiting the South Jersey suburb to drum up support for his “tool kit,” a slate of legislative proposals designed to help the state’s municipalities comply with a 2 percent property-tax cap that goes into effect next year. Behind him hung a giant banner that read CHRISTIE REFORM AGENDA, and to his side stood a placard that counted down the number of days that remained for the Democratic-controlled State Legislature to pass those reforms. “With 54 days left, they’ve taken a two-week vacation,” the Republican Christie told about 300 people who had crowded into the community house before the fire marshal barred the doors. “I’m not taking a vacation. I’m going to keep on coming out and talking to all of you.”

But Christie was holding the town hall to do more than just promote his agenda; he was also trying to gin up some Internet content. While his fellow governors tend to use their official YouTube channels to show ribbon-cuttings and speeches, Christie, a former federal prosecutor who relishes the thrust and parry of political debate, has turned his into a video library of gubernatorial smackdowns—which, after just ten months in office, are already so numerous that his admirers are able to rank their favorites. Like the one he delivered at a town hall in Rutherford, where he told a public-school teacher complaining about her salary that “teachers go into it knowing what the pay scale is” and that if she didn’t like what she was being paid, “then you don’t have to do it.” Or another he dished out to a reporter who asked him about his “confrontational tone.” “You must be the thinnest-skinned guy in America,” Christie replied, “because you think that’s a confrontational tone? Then you should really see me when I’m pissed.”

Almost everywhere Christie goes, he is filmed by an aide whose job is to capture these “moments,” as the governor’s staff has come to call them. When one occurs, Christie’s press shop splices the video and uploads it to YouTube; from there, conservatives throughout the country share Christie clips the way tween girls circulate Justin Bieber videos. “The YouTube stuff is golden,” says Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review. “I can’t tell you how many people forward them to me.” One video on Christie’s YouTube channel—a drubbing he delivered to another aggrieved public-school teacher at a town hall in September—has racked up over 750,000 views.

Now in Moorestown, Christie was hoping to create another such moment. After some introductory remarks, he opened the floor to questions. “For those of you who have seen some of my appearances on YouTube,” he cautioned, peeling off his suit jacket as he spoke, “this is when it normally happens.” Then, recognizing the man who was first in line at the microphone, Christie began to grin. “This could happen right here, ladies and gentlemen! This guy at times has the tendency to annoy me … Get ready! If you have your own cameras, start rolling!” But the man proceeded to lob Christie a softball, asking why the Legislature wouldn’t pass the governor’s education proposals. And the subsequent questions from the audience only got softer, as it seemed that everyone at the town hall was a supporter. “I want to take this moment to say two words to you, and that is thank you,” said one woman, not even bothering with a question. Christie did his best to pepper his responses with bombastic shots at his absent political opponents—“This is the crap I have to listen to,” he said of some of their criticisms—but the performance soon became like watching a prizefighter shadowbox.

Finally, after more than an hour, it was time for the last question. A middle-aged African-American woman stepped to the microphone. “I did not vote for you,” she said in a strong voice, “and I reject your unwillingness to reconsider the tunnel.” The previous day, Christie had announced he was killing a proposed train tunnel under the Hudson River between North Jersey and Manhattan because his state’s share of the construction costs was too high. “I reject the notion that we can’t afford an investment,” the woman said. “I want the governor to address this issue of investment.”

“Sure, okay, well, here we go,” Christie replied, before the woman started to interrupt him. He held up his hand. “Hold on! I’ve listened, so now let me answer.” Christie is the rare politician who is obese—his weight probably approaches 300 pounds—and, up on the stage, he now appeared to loom even larger. Staring down at the woman, he launched into a lengthy, at times pedantic, explanation of the tunnel’s funding formula, the likelihood of cost overruns, and the budgetary calculations that led him to conclude that New Jersey simply didn’t have the money to pay for the project. Each time the woman tried to interject, he cut her off—“Look at me, please,” he instructed her at one point—until eventually, she fell silent and stood awkwardly as he continued his monologue.

“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.”

“I am setting the tone.” The Moorestown town-hall meeting was over, and Christie was now leaning his frame on a giant butcher block in the building’s kitchen and explaining to me how he approaches his job. Christie suffers from asthma, and his boasting was punctuated by heavy breathing and frequent swigs from a water bottle. He seemed less a politician leaving an event than an athlete coming off the field—or Rex Ryan, that other larger-than-life New Jersey character, standing in a victorious locker room.

He has set the tone, in part, by being “a strong governor who has opinions and is willing to express them,” he said. When I asked him about New Jersey senator Frank Lautenberg’s criticism of his decision to cancel the tunnel, Christie shot back, “All he knows how to do is blow hot air … so I don’t really care what Frank Lautenberg has to say about much of anything.” Anything? “I’m always willing to read something in the paper that he said, and if he makes sense, I’m happy to work with him on it. I haven’t found one yet.” Christie believes his aggressive approach sends a signal to everyone else in the state. “The tone I’m trying to set for New Jersey is: action. Less talk, more action. And I think that’s what I’m doing as governor, and I think we’ve gotten a lot of stuff done already because of that, because I’m pushing and pushing and pushing.”

Much of the push comes from Christie’s willingness to exercise the enormous powers the State Constitution vests in his office—even the seldom-used ones. In May, angry about what he viewed as a liberal and “out of control” State Supreme Court, he refused to reappoint a sitting justice whose seven-year term was set to expire—an action that, despite being constitutionally permissible, no governor prior to Christie had ever taken. He especially relishes vetoing the meeting minutes of the more than 60 state authorities and commissions, ranging from the Turnpike Authority to the Maritime Pilot & Docking Pilot Commission, having vetoed more minutes in ten months than Corzine did in four years. Joe Kyrillos, a Republican state senator, says, “He understands and is not afraid to use the strength of the office to force outcomes in a way that other governors haven’t.”

Christie also exercises his power in less public ways. His control over his fellow Republicans in New Jersey is such that Steve Sweeney complains, “There’s no need to even have Republican legislators anymore. Once he decides something, they vote with him.” He’s achieved that loyalty partly with carrots. In the months between his election and his inauguration, Christie proved a quick study of New Jersey’s byzantine appointments system and did a masterful job of preventing Corzine from rewarding his supporters with plum spots on authorities and commissions—something almost every lame-duck governor has done. “It was an elaborate chess game,” recalls a former Corzine aide, “and he beat us at every step.” That meant those coveted appointments became Christie’s to dole out to his allies.

Not that he’s above cementing party loyalty with sticks. Republicans who have expressed doubts about various parts of the governor’s agenda have swiftly been brought into line with threats of retribution such as withholding fund-raising assistance or denying them their preferred judicial appointments. “He rules with an iron fist,” one Republican legislator told me. “If you’re a team player, he’s with you, but if you’re not, you’ve got problems. He’s vindictive, and it gets personal. He holds most of the cards, and he’s not afraid to play them.”

Christie has been most Machiavellian in his dealings with Democrats. Cory Booker, the Newark mayor once thought to be the Democrats’ best hope of beating Christie in 2013, now seems ill-suited for that role given his partnership with Christie to overhaul Newark’s schools—a Felix-and-Oscar act the two have taken all the way to the set of Oprah. “The governor holds the keys to every door that Booker needs unlocked,” a mayoral adviser explains.

Christie has more-important Democratic allies, as well. Although New Jersey often feels like an endless suburb, the state’s Democratic Party has long been dominated by a patchwork of old-style urban political machines—with all their concomitant ills. As U.S. Attorney, Christie made a name for himself by successfully prosecuting 130 public officials for corruption, including a number of the state’s most powerful Democratic bosses. And he’s tried to carry that reputation with him to Trenton, making ethics reform one of his signature issues. “I know you will find it hard to believe in New Jersey that you need an ethics-reform package,” he likes to say. And yet, since becoming governor, Christie has cultivated strong relationships with the three most prominent Democratic power brokers currently not in jail.

His political alliance with George Norcross, the legendary South Jersey Democratic boss who has expressed “the highest regard for Governor Christie’s aggressive leadership,” has made things difficult for Sweeney, who was installed as Senate president as the result of a Norcross power play and now must simultaneously try to satisfy both his political patron and the Democratic legislators who want him to be a strong voice of opposition. “Sweeney is always walking this fine line,” one prominent New Jersey Democrat says. “He’s probably going to have a stroke from all this.” Meanwhile, Steve Adubato and Joe DiVincenzo, two Newark-area Democrats who run the most powerful political machine in North Jersey, have become increasingly vocal in their support of Christie. “He’s a personal friend, and he’s been very helpful to me and my county,” DiVincenzo, who in November was elected to his third term as Essex County executive, told me. “As far as governors I’ve worked with, Chris stands alone.” These words of praise for Christie from “Joe D,” as DiVincenzo is known by everyone, must weigh heavily on the mind of Sheila Oliver, who, in addition to being speaker of the General Assembly, works as an Essex County administrator. “How can Oliver counter Christie when Joe D is one of the closest people to Christie and she makes $83,000 a year working for Joe D?” gripes a New Jersey labor leader.

“All he knows how to do is blow hot air … so I don’t really care what Frank Lautenberg has to say about anything,” says Christie.

“Christie’s managed to completely co-opt our party leadership,” says one Democratic legislator. How he’s done so is a matter of much theorizing in New Jersey political circles. One explanation is fairly prosaic: He’s simply engaged in the sort of transactional politics that have always defined Trenton, restoring nearly $17 million of proposed cuts to Essex County (thereby allowing DiVincenzo to avoid layoffs) and pledging $28 million in annual funds to a new medical school in Camden (the pet project of Norcross).

But a number of New Jersey Democrats take a more conspiratorial line. They mutter darkly—and circulate PowerPoint slides—about a state investigation into voter fraud in Essex County that, under Corzine, produced indictments against several members of Adubato and DiVincenzo’s political organization and appeared to be creeping closer to the two bosses themselves but that, since Christie became governor, seems to have ground to a halt. They speculate it was not a coincidence that Norcross was the biggest fish Christie failed to catch during his time as U.S. Attorney, noting that he didn’t prosecute the boss even after the state attorney general referred a case against him to the Feds. (At the time, Christie said the state had botched its investigation.)

Christie and his allies dismiss the allegations as unfounded—“I’m not going to dignify any of that with a response,” says his spokesperson Maria Comella—and the thinking does carry a hint of paranoia on the part of Democrats, who are still coming to grips with Christie’s success. Then again, this is New Jersey. When I asked one prominent Garden State Democrat what he thinks is going on, he answered, “I can go as deep into my own suspicions as you want.”

However you slice it, Christie’s détente with the Democratic Party bosses is at odds with his image as the governor who has single-handedly transformed New Jersey’s toxically corrupt political culture—“the scourge of Trenton,” as the National Review calls him. But Christie has proved masterful at creating a narrative in which he alone has the power and determination to confront the villains standing in the way of New Jersey’s future. In his telling, mundane policy disputes become twilight struggles between good and evil.

His battle with the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), over a proposed pay freeze and an increase in employee contributions to health benefits, has been particularly epic. “I came to Trenton … and it’s like coming to a new schoolyard,” he says. “I looked around, and there were a bunch of people on the ground, all bloody and moaning, all beat up, and there was one person on the schoolyard standing … When you see that one person standing up, that’s the bully. And in New Jersey, that’s the New Jersey teachers union.” He has accused teachers of “ripping off” the state and treating their pupils like “drug mules” after some were sent home tasked with asking their parents how they would vote on the school budget. And the demonizing has worked. A November poll put Christie’s in-state approval rating at 51 percent—30 points higher than the NJEA’s.

Less than a year into his tenure, Christie is no longer just a popular governor; he has become a national Republican star. His focus on fiscal issues and his reluctance to wade into the culture wars—during his gubernatorial campaign, he declined Palin’s offer to stump for him—have endeared him to members of the GOP’s sane wing. “The breakthrough he’s scoring in New Jersey is hugely promising,” says David Frum, a conservative writer who fears that the Republican Party is being swallowed by the tea party. At the same time, Christie’s combativeness has made him a popular figure with the tea party in a way that someone like Indiana governor Mitch Daniels—who’s fought some of the same fiscal battles in his state but with the mien of an accountant—can only dream of. More than anything, Christie fills the longing, currently felt in all corners of the GOP (and beyond), for a stern taskmaster. “People just want to be treated like adults,” Christie says. “They just want to be told the truth. They know we’re in tough times, and they’re willing to sacrifice. But they want shared sacrifice.”

Christie’s message has led to much speculation—and hope—among Republicans that he will run for the White House in 2012. Last month, he won the presidential straw poll at the Virginia Tea Party Patriots convention, and a Draft Christie website was launched soon after. Christie and his advisers have insisted a 2012 presidential bid isn’t in the cards. “Short of suicide, I don’t really know what I’d have to do to convince you people that I’m not running,” he recently told reporters in Trenton. Over coffee at a Metropark hotel last month, Bill Palatucci, New Jersey’s national Republican committeeman and Christie’s closest political confidant, couldn’t contain his annoyance with the 2012 talk. “Where the hell’s the OFF switch?” he asked.

And yet Christie’s actions aren’t those of someone who has ruled out a presidential bid. On the morning I met with Palatucci, he was just back from Indianapolis, where, the night before, Christie had been the keynote speaker at an Indiana Republican Party fund-raiser. “There were 800 people there,” Palatucci nonchalantly noted. “He got two or three standing ovations.” Indiana was one of fifteen states Christie visited before the midterm elections as he stumped for Republican candidates from California to Pennsylvania.

In early October, Christie traveled to Iowa, to appear at a fund-raiser for the Republican gubernatorial candidate Terry Branstad. Speaking in a banquet hall outside Des Moines, Christie regaled 700 people—who paid $100 apiece to hear him speak and $1,500 to have a photo taken with him—with tales of his budgetary heroics. “You thought fiscal ’10 was fun,” he said to the smitten Iowans, “wait till you hear about fiscal ’11.” After his speech, Christie and Branstad met with reporters. Branstad—who served four terms as Iowa governor in the eighties and nineties and now, having won his fifth term, could be a 2012 caucus kingmaker—went first. “I don’t think I’ve been that inspired by a speech since Ronald Reagan was here,” he said. When it was Christie’s turn, he issued his standard denials about a presidential run. But then, when the press conference was over, a Christie aide flagged down Tom Beaumont, the Des Moines Register’s chief political reporter and a journalist any wannabe presidential candidate absolutely needs to get to know. About 30 seconds later, Beaumont and Christie headed off together for a more intimate interview.

Back in New Jersey, many politicos, especially the Democrats, don’t put much stock in Christie’s denials. “He swears a million times over, but c’mon, guys like me and him have egos,” Steve Sweeney told me. “You can already hear the speech. ‘In times like these, I have to put personal considerations aside and do this for my country …’ ” More than one person I spoke to made an analogy to another politician who had considerable star power but little experience when he decided to run for president. “This is sort of his Obama moment,” says Steve DeMicco, New Jersey’s preeminent Democratic strategist. “He either grabs the opportunity or he doesn’t.”

There are risks for Christie in waiting. New Jersey governors tend to get undue amounts of national attention early in their terms owing to the fact that the state holds its elections in off-years, and given the looming fiscal apocalypse, Christie is getting a lot of credit simply by stepping up to the plate. “I’m not sure I agree with everything he’s advocating, but he’s trying to address the problems,” says Jim Florio, a Democrat who was perhaps the last New Jersey governor to take fiscal responsibility seriously. “I admire his courage.”

But the job has a way of taking the shine off its holders, and for Christie, it’s only going to get harder. The longer he stays in office, the more he’ll be forced to take ownership of the state’s fiscal problems—and face the consequences of his spending cuts. Keeping his party in line will be more difficult, too. “He got a free pass this year,” says one Republican legislator. “Next year we’re all up for reelection, and we’re going to have to look out for ourselves on some of these votes.”

Already, his legislative successes have slowed. An ambitious pension-reform plan he unveiled in September is stalled in the Legislature. And the clock continues to tick on his tool-kit reforms. If those aren’t passed by the end of December, then next year, municipalities across New Jersey will have to resort to major layoffs—or bust the cap with referendums. Christie’s allies say that if that occurs, voters will blame the Democratic Legislature, but that’s no sure thing. As a former Corzine aide ruefully notes, being governor of New Jersey “is a setup for failure. It’s a sucker’s bet.”

On the other hand, Christie could turn out to be the rare New Jersey governor who survives the job. He’s already confounded expectations once. In a year when every politician with any degree of responsibility has appeared feckless and weak—and has suffered in the polls—Christie has figured out a way to connect with the public. But to sustain that connection over the long haul will require more than just bombast. While his tough talk is garnering the most attention, he is also, in a sporadic and underappreciated way, fashioning a more optimistic message, one in which deficit reduction and spending cuts become testaments to the fundamental Republican—and Reaganite—idea that the future is bright, that we can save ourselves from our self-indulgence, that we will rebuild the country from our own shared sacrifice.

It was another day in October, another town hall, this time at a South Brunswick firehouse. For 90 minutes, anticipation had been building for a display of rhetorical fireworks. But the meeting’s last question came from a 10-year-old girl who was inviting the governor to speak at her school, and the Christie staffers seemed resigned to leaving the town hall without a moment in the bag. But then Christie did something unexpected. He created another type of moment.

He launched into a reverie about wanting to give the girl the same “great New Jersey life” he and others have had. “As I look out in the crowd, I think most of us have lived a little life, and we probably lived it here,” he said in a voice that was softer than his usual bellow. “And we’re still here, which means we love this place, because there’s no good financial reason for us to be staying. New Jersey is an actor, a player in our lives. And I want this to be that place for her.” Christie told of how he was able to raise his family in New Jersey not far from where he grew up, so his parents could be involved in the lives of his four children, and how he worried that opportunity might not be available to others in the future “because they simply will not be able to afford it. They’ll be forced to make the choice to go someplace else, where it’s easier to find a job, where it’s less expensive to live, where they’re going to build a new life that’ll be apart from us.” He continued, “I don’t want our generation to be the one that has to hear about the great North Carolina life that our children and grandchildren have, the great Florida life they have, the great Virginia life they have, and have to wonder, If we had done the tough things we needed to do, could they have stayed here.”

As Christie spoke, the firehouse fell completely quiet, save for the hum of the ventilation system. A silver-haired woman a few seats down from me dabbed at her eyes. “And so we’ve got a choice to make,” Christie said. “We can bury our heads in the sand, we can surround ourselves with the creature comforts that life in New Jersey has provided to us … or at this moment in our history, we can say, ‘To hell with that, it’s hard, I’m going to have to sacrifice something,’ but I want this state to be a place where my kids and grandkids can grow up and have the great life that I had.”

For now, though, that’s a Chris Christie moment nowhere to be found on YouTube.

The Answer Is No