Last November, voters in New Jersey and Virginia tried to send a message to President Obama by electing Republican governors in the only gubernatorial elections held in 2009. But while conservatives were excited about Virginia's Bob McDonnell, they were less enthusiastic about New Jersey's Chris Christie.
Christie had been largely viewed as the more moderate candidate in the primary, in which he defeated conservative Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan. What is more, while the Republican base was delighted to witness the defeat of Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, conservatives were skeptical that Christie could make much of a difference in New Jersey.
Just a few short months later, however, Chris Christie has become an emerging conservative hero, mostly by standing up for fiscal sanity in the Garden State. Almost immediately upon taking office, he passed pension and benefits reform. That meant public workers must contribute toward their own health care and it also created a formula for determining the pensions for newly hired employees. He also signed an executive order on transparency, forcing government agencies to post expenditures online with a search engine attached.
It's starting to earn him national attention. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, William McGurn noted, "If he is to survive the headlines about budget cuts and pull New Jersey back to prosperity, Mr. Christie knows he needs to put the hard choices before the state's citizens, and to speak to them as adults. He's doing just that."
And at a "Newsmaker Breakfast" sponsored by The American Spectator and Americans for Tax Reform last week, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said, "Christie is actually trying to fundamentally change New Jersey..." In a world where politicians are rewarded for taking the easy road, the portly and rumpled governor of New Jersey has become a rare commodity – an elected official willing to make hard decisions, despite the fact that he knows it will cost him politically.
Christie has been in office only a few months, but his hard-line on cutting New Jersey's unwieldy $10.7 billion budget deficit has already taken its toll on his polling numbers. In just a few months, his approval ratings have plummeted. Local officials and Democrats are angry that he wants to cut spending, and that he won't let them raise taxes. At the same time, Christie may be doing exactly what is needed to save his state from further economic calamity. Perhaps this is what we should have expected from a man with the moxie to tell Governor Corzine, "man up and say I'm fat."
Recently, Gov. Christie angered teachers unions by announcing that many of New Jersey's richest school districts will receive zero state funds next year -- and also by offering more state aid to schools if they agree to freeze teacher pay for 2011 and contribute 1.5 percent of their salaries to fund their health benefits. Union officials came slightly unhinged, as evidenced by Bergen County Education Association President Joe Coppola's harsh, albeit tongue-in-cheek email in which he came across as essentially asking union members to pray for Christie's death:
"Dear Lord this year you have taken away my favorite actor, Patrick Swayze, my favorite actress, Farrah Fawcett, my favorite singer, Michael Jackson, and my favorite salesman, Billy Mays. I just wanted to let you know that Chris Christie is my favorite governor," the email said. On MSNBC's "Morning Joe, Christie responded by noting that the 1.5 percent contribution would prevent any layoffs, and could be made up if teachers unions in New Jersey waived their union fees this year.
Despite the criticism, Christie has stayed the course, which for him means addressing New Jersey's devastated state finances by dramatically cutting spending. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, recalls that the last New Jersey Republican governor, Christine Todd Whitman, "started to fight with the unions and there was screaming and blood on the floor, and she kind of backed down." In terms of how Christie is doing, Norquist quips, "Christie 2.0 is doing better than Christie 1.0."
But it's not easy. Chris Christie's bold action on the budget reflects the sad realities facing the state. For his troubles, Christie has been accused of championing a "slash-and-burn budget." Cutting spending is a popular idea right up until the time a governor actually trims a specific program. At that point, whoever's ox has been gored tugs on the heartstrings of the public and the media by portraying the spending cutter as mean-spirited. Just to give you an idea of how it works, an ad funded by the New Jersey Education Association that is running in the state says Christie is "attacking teachers, school bus drivers and lunch ladies,"
It's political smears like that one that petrify politicians into kicking fiscal problems down the road – and induce governors and legislatures (and presidents and congresses) to ignore painful, but necessary fixes to their own economies. The upshot is that spending almost never gets cut, and taxes continue to rise to cover it. High taxes exacerbate the effects of a sour economy, and a vicious cycle ensues.
For this reason, Chris Christie's political courage is impressive. "How it happens is, you raise spending out of control," Christie explained on Morning Joe. "Over the last twenty years, spending has averaged 16 percent increase a year on the state level ... and you raise taxes 115 times in the last eight years, so you kill your revenue base. You do the two of them, it's a double-whammy..."
To be sure, not every conservative group is sold on Christie. Mike Connolly, a spokesman for the Club for Growth said, "So far his rhetoric sounds great, but we want to see results before we make an assessment."
But whether Christie can turn New Jersey around or not, his willingness to make bold decisions – and stand firm on them -- may just help Republicans who are running in 2010 overcome the public's skepticism as to whether, once in office, they really will cut spending and not raise taxes. It very well may be that Christie's efforts in New Jersey will send a signal to Republican voters that help is on the way, and that it's not just politics as usual.
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