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Opinion: Christie and Sweeney Have More in Common Than Ambition

Both governor and the Senate president are working hard to reforge strong bonds with their political bases

carl golden
Carl Golden

As Gov. Chris Christie continues his national tour and Senate President Steve Sweeney maintains his stepped-up schedule of instate appearances, certain strategic parallels have emerged.

While both continue to fend off questions about their motives, their campaignlike activities fuel the already high level of speculation that they are laying foundations to support future political ambitions.

Central to the strategy of both men is an effort to reconnect and reforge strong bonds with their respective party bases -- Christie by convincing his critics on the right that they should not consider him the stereotypical Northeastern Republican moderate and Sweeney by reassuring his skeptics that he is committed to and shares their ideological principles.

Both understand and appreciate the necessity of overcoming any adverse beliefs about their dedication to party philosophy and in building relationships that can be relied upon at some later time for support. Chits are still chits; collecting them and calling them in at the most opportune time remains perhaps the most fundamental element in political life.

The round of personal appearances and interactions embraced by Christie at a national level and Sweeney in the state provides an opportunity for those who desire a closer inspection to do so.

It’s a ritual once described by the late Washington Post reporter and syndicated columnist David Broder as giving people a chance to “feel the material before making a buy.”

In pursuit of his goal, Christie has made extensive and effective use of the platform given him as chairman of the Republican Governors Association to campaign with and raise funds for gubernatorial and congressional candidates across the country.

At each of the rallies, dinners, lunches, and tours he’s laced into President Barack Obama for a general failure of leadership on virtually every issue -- healthcare, economic recovery, job creation, immigration, and foreign policy.

He’s aware of the undercurrent of suspicion that he’s insufficiently conservative, that he’s driven by pragmatism rather than ideology. There are still, for instance, those in the party who refuse to overlook Christie’s very public embrace of the president in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy two years ago -- an egregious act that they contend inflicted serious damage on presidential candidate Mitt Romney in the closing days of his campaign.

Christie’s seized every opportunity to ingratiate himself with his party’s right, not only by campaigning for conservative candidates but by emphasizing his stalwart antitax stance, prolife record, and his opposition to public employee union demands. He was also quick to come to the defense of Gov. Rick Perry -- a potential presidential contender himself -- after the Texan was indicted on charges almost universally considered flimsy in the extreme and politically driven.

In the meantime, Sweeney has trekked around New Jersey assisting in raising money for municipal and county candidates, convening joint news conferences with local officials, sitting for editorial board interviews, and generally lending the heft of his Senate presidency to each appearance.

Just as Christie is held suspect by his party’s right, Sweeney, too, is aware of the suspicions that he’s been too close to the governor and that he’s compromised too frequently for the sake of short-term political advantage. There is lingering resentment over his considerably less-than vigorous support for the party’s gubernatorial candidate last year, and there remains an element of distrust over his long and strong association with South Jersey political leader George Norcross.

Sweeney has attempted to distance himself from the governor with scathing denunciations of Christie’s dramatic reductions in state contributions to the public employee pension system and pledging unyielding opposition to any effort to extract further concessions from those employees.

Nerves are still raw over his leadership in 2011 of the ultimately successful effort to require public employees to contribute more to their pension and health benefits system and freeze the cost-of-living adjustments for retirees.

He’s accused the administration of badly mishandling the relief and recovery efforts for victims of Hurricane Sandy and of compounding its failure by refusing to disclose fully the program’s record.

He’s criticized the administration for failing to confront the potential crisis of a soon-to-be bankrupt Transportation Trust Fund, warning that more of the state’s roads and bridges will fall into disrepair and dangerous obsolescence if action is delayed.

Another common element in the strategy is the careful avoidance of any programmatic solutions to the issues they’ve raised. Both have turned aside questions about what they propose, insisting that calling greater attention to the problems and pointing out the failure to deal with them is all that’s required of them at the moment.

There is an air of optimism in both parties over their future prospects. Republicans believe they are well positioned to gain the six seats necessary to take control of the U. S. Senate and build an unstoppable wave of momentum heading into the 2016 presidential election. At the same time, New Jersey Democrats feel the governor’s office is theirs for the taking in 2017. The combination of there being an open seat, a weakened Republican Party, and a failure at this point at least of a formidable candidate to emerge has given rise to Democratic hopes for winning the governor’s office and maintaining control of the Legislature as well.

For Christie and Sweeney, fulfilling their ambitions will not be simple. If they decide to seek higher offices, they’ll face other formidable candidates with the same goal in mind. Rising above the competition is a challenge for which no one is ever adequately prepared.

For the moment, though, the strategy they’ve charted comes from the same book.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

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