by Olivia Nuzzi
Don’t let Christie’s embrace of Obama fool you into thinking he’s a unifier.
It was a startling image. Governor Chris Christie, the darling of the Republican party heralded by everyone from Ann Coulter to the Koch Brothers, entwined with President Obama. In a political climate so polarized that accusations of socialism and racism pepper even the most relaxed of criticisms, the gesture was both a comfort and an inspiration.
Yet the forbidden, bipartisan embrace was much more than just the Brokeback Mountain moment of the 2012 presidential election. It was the greatest endorsement Obama could’ve hoped for in the last hour of a bitter campaign. It was an endorsement so moving and persuasive that many conservatives have deemed Christie a traitor and the picture of him, arms locked with their Public Enemy In Chief, responsible for Romney’s failure.
With his pragmatic demeanor, Christie had seemingly constructed a bridge between reasonable Republicans who see demographics changing and feel the Romney lesson viscerally and the extremists who funded Santorum and Gingrich in a bid to protect themselves from the threat of Sharia Law. And with his pragmatic response to the damage Sandy caused to the Garden State, Christie tore that bridge down.
For his acknowledgement of Obama’s job-well-done, Bill O’Reilly blasted Christie for having “wiped the governor’s campaign off the map for five days.” The American Spectator placed him on the “list of fools who have brought this disaster upon us” and referred to him as a “gelatinous clown.” Brett Decker of the Washington Times called on the GOP to “excommunicate Christie.” Laura Ingraham stated that she “would not be surprised” if he became a Democrat.
Christie is no stranger to divisiveness.
While his violent budget cuts have garnered him praise as a no-nonsense fiscal conservative, they have divorced voter from voter and legislator from legislator. Christie has pitted people against each other while keeping the spotlight on himself.
In Chris Christie’s New Jersey, there is less to go around. This is because at $282 billion, the state’s debt is the fourth-highest in the nation and we suffered a 15% drop in state revenue from the prior fiscal year, which in NJ ends on June 30. And for Christie, ensuring that there is room for the abuse and misuse of taxpayer money takes precedence over caring for the people of the state. He has spent public funds carelessly: $260 million on a casino in Atlantic City which has reported $35 million in losses during its first three months of operation; $300,000 on radio advertisements in Illinois with the objective of luring businesses to the Garden State, and not a single business relocated. This is in addition to the grants and initiatives he has doled out to the private sector.
Fighting over what’s left are those in the middle class and ever-expanding lower class. It is a fight in which there can be no real winner. When signing his $31.7B budget this past June, the governor halted the Democrats’ efforts to restore funds to social services. Christie cut $7.5 million in women’s health funding and $21 million in medical services for the elderly. Also cut were higher education funding and aid for low-income students.
Christie’s divisiveness acts as a distraction which prevents the thorough scrutiny of his record. With his state in crisis, we argue – and so, too, do many of his constituents – over things of little consequence: Is he a bully or is he a straight-talker? Is he refreshing or is he an embarrassment? He has made the central, if not the only, debate over Governor Chris Christie one about personality rather than policy. In a matter of speaking, he has even divided reality by separating his own reputation from his actual governing tactics and leadership failures in a way that has been uncommonly efficient.
At his taxpayer funded town halls, Christie blasted the “Corzine Democrats” in Trenton for their “tax and spend” ways. Yet, It would be difficult to find anyone who knows more about taxing and spending than the governor.
Since February, he has advocated for a 10 percent across the board income tax cut which would save the average middle class family $80.50 while saving millionaires $7,265.75. The tax cut would cost the state, which according to Christie cannot afford $5 million in aid to struggling cities, a staggering $1.1 billion.
Christie’s 2012 budget, according to the National Governors Association and National Association of State Budget Officers, included a 6.8 percent increase in spending from the previous years – among the biggest spending increases of any state in the country. Governor Christie is a reckless spender, and his spending has resulted in inadvertent tax hikes which hit the middle class the hardest.
Property taxes, which were already among the highest in the country, have spiked during Christie’s governorship. Fare hikes for public transportation have gone up by 25 percent. The governor refers to cost surges such as this as “user fees,” a tax by a different name.
Work is hard to find in New Jersey. In September, unemployment hit a 35 year high of 9.9% after steadily increasingly over the summer. The same summer Governor Christie spent campaigning on the notion that the Garden State was seeing a “Jersey Comeback” – though a better slogan might have been “You Gonna Believe Me Or Your Own Lying Eyes?”
One out of every twelve mortgages in New Jersey is in the foreclosure stage, the second highest percentage of mortgage loans in foreclosure in the country. Over half of our highways are in poor or mediocre condition and over a quarter of our bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
Governor Christie is confident enough in his command of fiction to sell his balancing of New Jersey’s budget as some sort of legislative achievement, when as a matter of fact, the state constitution mandates that a balanced budget be passed each year.
The governor has long advertised that his legislative accomplishments in Trenton are due to his ability to get bipartisan support. Indeed now, with a single embrace of President Obama, the portrait of Chris Christie as an independent leader able to work across party lines has been solidified for many. But his bipartisanship in Trenton comes down to somewhat murkier political bargaining, namely his ability to get Democratic bosses who control votes to yield to him.
When Christie passed pension reform thorough the legislature last year, all of the Democratic votes – with the exception of Senator Brian Stack, who is also a Mayor and thus needs the governor’s support – came from legislators loyal to either George Norcross, South Jersey’s Democratic boss or Joe D, Essex County’s Democratic boss.
Christie’s brand of transactional politics is bipartisan, and is in no way unique to New Jersey, but the fact remains that dealing, as Christie does, is a different art than leading.
It was a startling image. Governor Chris Christie, tired and worn from the chaos Sandy wrought, accepting the aid of President Obama. In a state that had suffered unseen damage before the storm hit, the gesture was a reminder of Christie’s refusal to unite neighbor with neighbor and rhetoric with reality.
Olivia Nuzzi is a columnist for Asbury Park’s The Tri-City News.
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