Gov. Chris Christie’s aggressive unilateral action -- blocking, temporarily at least, an increase in the gasoline tax, shutting down ongoing road construction projects, and withholding $100 million in municipal aid to force reductions in the cost of public employee health benefits -- sent tea-leaf readers and dot connectors into speculation overdrive, sussing out the governor’s motives and translating them into a longer-term grand strategy.
One theory gaining currency has it that it is an attempt by Christie to dramatize his anti-tax, anti-spending credentials in the hope of securing an appointment to a cabinet position in a Trump administration (if there is one), or in the event of a Hillary Clinton victory, remaining relevant for the next four years to prepare for a 2020 run in the Republican presidential primary.
Whatever his ambitions may be, one thing is clear: Christie has reestablished himself as the dominant political figure in New Jersey, intent on bending the Democratic-controlled Legislature to his will and setting the agenda for the remaining 17 months of his term.
His executive order halting $3.5 billion worth of road construction, as well as forestalling capital purchases for New Jersey Transit and impounding municipal-aid funds drew immediate cries of illegality and accusations that he’d overstepped his authority.
Some critics were less inclined to engage in an academic debate over constitutional prerogatives, attributing the governor’s response to petulance and spite over the Senate’s failure to accept his proposal to increase the gasoline tax by 23 cents a gallon while reducing the sales tax by one cent.
The plan, conceived by Christie and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, drew little support in the Senate from Democrats or Republicans, producing an impasse that has left the Transportation Trust Fund with no resources to allocate to ongoing or new projects.
The argument that Christie’s latest moves are intended for the ears and attention of an audience beyond New Jersey is a credible one. Christie himself has been a significant contributor to its plausibility.
When he abandoned his quest for the Republican presidential nomination after near last place finishes in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, Christie quickly endorsed Trump who, while the frontrunner, hadn’t yet attained the 1,237 delegates needed to lock up the nomination and still faced primary challengers.
Since then, Christie has played an increasingly visible and significant role in the Trump campaign, serving as a surrogate speaker for the candidate, helping in fund-raising efforts, securing an appointment as chairman of the Trump transition team, and emerging as a close advisor with considerable influence over policy and campaign strategy. He’s also been called upon to explain or defend some of Trump’s more inflammatory remarks.
In the context of presidential politics and national attention, Christie’s swift and sweeping executive actions are perceived as an effort to reinforce his reputation as a no-nonsense governor eager to do battle with special interests and protect taxpayers.
Despite historic low approval ratings -- 26 percent at last count -- and the specter of the George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal clouding his administration, Christie has managed to seize control of the public debate and establish the frame of reference for tax and fiscal policies.
His insistence that any legislation to increase the gasoline tax be part of a package of “tax fairness” has stymied Democrats and given him the whip hand in developing a compromise solution.
Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), for instance, has been relatively mild in his reaction, saying only that he is committed to working with Christie and his counterparts in the Assembly Democratic leadership to end the stalemate and restore a stable flow of money to the Trust Fund. He has reiterated his misgivings about cutting a penny off the sales tax, but has stopped short of the “no way, no how” position taken by some Democratic senators who fear the $1.6 billion in lost revenue will devastate other areas of the budget.
Sweeney is under additional pressure from organized labor -- a key constituency for anyone interested in seeking the party’s gubernatorial nomination in 2017 -- to end the funding impasse. The prospect of protracted work stoppages and the loss of thousands of heavy construction jobs will be a major consideration driving efforts to end the stalemate.
Christie’s withholding of desperately needed municipal aid from urban communities in particular until economies are implemented in the public health-benefits system was both unexpected and heavy-handed.
Reining in the costs of public employee benefits --- pensions as well as medical coverage --- has long been a Christie Administration goal, but using denial of state aid as leverage to achieve it struck many as a punitive overreach.
Unions representing public workers have argued they’ve already done their part through increased contributions to their benefits package while Christie, on the other hand, has reneged on his pledge to meet its funding obligations.
Christie clearly relishes another fight with public employees and his action on state aid merely places added pressure on Sweeney and legislative Democrats to seek a resolution.
Christie, mindful of the possible national implications for him, is in a position to drive a hard bargain to reach compromises to resolve the trust fund and state aid issues. He’ll frame the outcomes as evidence of strong leadership and a refusal to cave in under private interest pressure.
Win or lose in November, Christie’s close association with Trump will serve him well, portraying him as a man of strong party loyalty who doggedly stuck by the nominee while others abandoned him to save their own skins.
A Trump victory will, of course, elevate Christie to national prominence and regard while any damage inflicted by a Trump defeat will be temporary.
If he does hold ambitions for 2020, the larger concern for Christie is maintaining visibility and relevance for the two years after he leaves office in January of 2018 and loses the public platform he now enjoys. It will be necessary for him to overcome short political memories and rise above the perception that he’s merely a former Republican governor who remained true to the party through a difficult period.
Moreover, it’s a certainty that he’ll face significant competition for the nomination --Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio to name just two -- and from others who will achieve party and popular attention as well.
For the moment, though, Christie has drawn the line in the sand, turning his handling of state issues into potentially national recognition.