In this week's New York Times magazine, Matt Bai has a 6500-word profile on New Jersey Governor Christie.
It’s a great read. The tone is one of reserved fascination, and the piece shies away from partisan appraisal. Bai’s descriptive metaphors focus on the mystique of Chris Christie’s public posture; a “grandstanding prosecutor,” Chris Christie works the circuit of New Jersey’s townships “like a stand-up comedian” and with a style “as slick as sandpaper” still manages to deliver his message as if “Oprah was giving a talk about state budgets and tax policy.” Throughout the piece, Bai presents a conflict between refreshing bluntness and political gamesmanship, wondering aloud if Christies’ waged war against the public employees’ unions stems from principle or political opportunism:
“It may just be that Christie has stumbled onto the public-policy issue of our time, which is how to bring the exploding costs of the public workforce in line with reality.
Then again, he may simply be the latest in a long line of politicians to give an uneasy public the scapegoat it demands. Depending on your vantage point, Chris Christie is a truth-teller or a demagogue, or maybe even a little of both.”
Amidst a flurry of discussion regarding a Chris Christie presidential run in 2012, an aspiration Christie has publically denied having again and again, Bai avoids the temptation to speculate. Instead, he deals with real political meat: Christie’s unbelievable success as New Jersey’s governor.
The Unlikely Rise
Bai identifies the incredible mismatch of political experience between Christie and his 2009 opponent, and how Christie actually used the mismatch to his advantage:
A U.S. attorney whose only overtly political experience entailed serving on the Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders (seriously, they still call it that), Christie had only a fraction of Corzine’s public exposure or personal fortune. About the only thing he had going for him was that Corzine was pervasively unpopular. And so rather than come up with a lot of actual ideas, which Corzine would then be free to oversimplify and distort in a barrage of television ads, Christie simply offered up a bunch of conservative platitudes and tried to make the campaign a referendum on the Democratic governor. (When we talked during the campaign, Christie could articulate little by way of an agenda, except to say that he would “get in there and make it work.”) Even a lot of Republicans thought Christie was underwhelming as a campaigner.
In the end, Christie won by about four points on Election Night in 2009, with little notion of what he was going to do next.
Thanks to YouTube and the outspoken support from Republican leaders nationwide, Christie’s fight against the public employee unions has been well documented. Bai brings to light how the war began:
When I asked him if there was any one moment of clarity that put him on the path from cautious candidate to union-bashing conservative hero, Christie pointed to a meeting about a month into the transition, when his aides came to him brandishing an analysis of the state’s cash flow produced by Goldman Sachs. They advised the governor-elect that, without some serious action, the state could fail to meet payroll by the end of March. After scrutinizing the budget, Christie told me, his team came to the conclusion that the only way to get control of local taxes and state spending was to go after the pension and health care benefits that the public-sector unions held sacrosanct. From that point on, it seems, Christie has conducted his governorship as if he were still a grandstanding prosecutor, taking powerful unions on perp walks with evident enthusiasm.
And Bai seems to agree with Christie that the fight itself (spoiler alert) is a worthy one:
The crux of Christie’s argument is that public-sector contracts have to reflect what has happened in the private sector, where guaranteed pensions and free health care are becoming relics.
He goes on to explain in some detail the dire state of New Jersey’s unfunded pension system: