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:
(I)n the long term, New Jersey doesn’t have nearly enough money on hand to cover its pension obligations to teachers and other state workers. At no time in the last 17 years has New Jersey fully met its annual obligation to the pension fund, and in many of those years, the state paid nothing at all. (That didn’t stop one governor, Donald DiFrancesco, a Republican, from increasing payouts by 9 percent and lowering the retirement age before he left office, which would be kind of like Bernie Madoff writing you a $1 million check before heading off to jail.) Even had the state been contributing faithfully to the fund as it was supposed to, however, there would still be trouble ahead. That’s because New Jerseyans, who are glass-half-full kind of people, have assumed an improbably healthy return of 8.25 percent annually on the state pension fund. The actual return over the last 10 years averaged only 2.6 percent.
Finally, the state will pay close to $3 billion this year in health care premiums for public employees (including retired teachers), and that number is rising fast. New Jersey has set aside exactly zero dollars to cover it. All told, in pensions and health care benefits, New Jersey’s “unfunded liability” — that is, the amount the actuaries say it would need to find in order to meet its obligations for the next 30 years — has now passed the $100 billion mark.”
“One reason that leaders in a state like New Jersey haven’t been able to get a handle on pension and benefit costs… is that the subject is agonizingly dull and all but impossible to explain,” writes Bai. “Christie, it turns out, has a preternatural gift for making the complex seem deceptively simple.”
But Christie has also made the simple stick. Bai identifies the reason:
Another thing Christie understands about political messaging, especially when your adversaries are out there portraying you as callous, is that it has to be grounded in the personal.” Christie constantly weaves personal stories into his addresses, striking emotional chords among the members of his audience.
While Bai muses that Christie may have merely picked the easiest target in the teachers union, and gives time to the unions’ side of the story—including quotes from both the New Jersey Education Association’s president and executive director—he also argues that the unions have played the political game very, very badly:
Christie has gone out of his way to anoint the teachers’ union as the most sinister force in the galaxy,” writes Bai, “not because he has some long-buried torment with a teacher to work through, but because the union does a very capable job of representing for him everything about the public sector that voters don’t like.”
Early on, Christie had called for an across the board pay freeze, encouraging local public employee union to take the hit or else face the risk of massive job loss:
“Most local chapters of the union ignored him. Ultimately some 10,000 union members — teachers and support staff — saw their jobs eliminated.”
The union maintains that Christie’s plea was mere gimmickry, because the layoffs would have happened even if its local chapters acceded to the demand for a freeze. But even if this is true, it would seem to reflect a staggering lack of political calculation. Had the teachers agreed to take the short-term hit by acquiescing to a temporary freeze, it would have been worlds harder for Christie to then run around the state demanding longer-term concessions on pensions and benefits. And when the layoffs did materialize, the governor would most likely have shouldered most of the blame. Instead, the whole affair seemed to prove Christie’s point about the union’s self-involvement, and it enabled him to blame the teachers themselves for the layoffs.”
Christie has not stopped pressing that advantage.
The conclusion of the piece is that the governor is an excellent politician, has picked the smart battle, and is fighting it well. The outcome is unclear in Bai’s mind, but Christie’s detractors continue to make mistake after mistake, whether it is the unyielding unions or those who try to reduce his image to that of a bull in a china shop:
To portray Christie in this cartoonish way, as so many critics do, is to vastly underestimate his skill as a politician. The most sophisticated communicators of the modern era hammer at a consistent argument about their moment and the response it demands, and they choose carefully constructed metaphors to make the choices ahead seem obvious — think of Ronald Reagan’s morning in America, or Bill Clinton’s bridge to the 21st century. And Christie’s communications strategy is about as sophisticated as any you will find in American politics right now.
Thomas O'Ban is an intern at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.