The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Why New Jersey Is Different


Earlier this month, Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, drew considerable attention for dressing down a reporter and encapsulating his public philosophy with tart, colorful language. To boil it down, Christie acknowledged that he did at times take on a confrontational tone, but he did so in order to make his intentions and his agenda clear to his interlocutors and to the broader public. Rather than hide behind an empty conciliatory stance, he intended to have an open and honest debate about the issues. Dave Weigel contrasted the warm conservative reception for Christie with the reaction to President Obama disdainful interactions with the press.

I can’t help but notice, however, the difference between the reaction Christie’s getting and the reaction President Obama gets when he rips into reporters, either to their faces or at rallies. Obviously, you expect conservative partisans to like Christie and liberal partisans to like Obama. But we’ve seen conservatives deride Obama’s “lecturing tone,”to Republicans, exhibit outrage when he reportedly used the word “teabagger,” accuse him of stiffing the press when he told a reporter his question was a “waste” — in other words, no atta-boys for Christie-esque behavior.

There are a lot of reasons for this. Obama’s tone is not Christie’s tone, and Obama’s rationale for office was not Christie’s. Obama ran explicitly as a uniter, so any swing at the opposition or his critics gives conservatives the opportunity to be “deeply disappointed” at Obama’s rhetoric. Christie has less to lose — despite defeating an unpopular incumbent, he’s not all that popular in his state. But the split reaction is interesting. 

Some would say that the president’s rhetorical difference-splitting masks a deep disinterest in substantive compromise. Some, in turn, would object that the president really has embraced substantive compromise, e.g., PPACA is in fact a “Republican plan,” etc. The problem is that we can’t really know if PPACA represents a marked departure from the president’s preference for, say, a single-payer insurance system because he is very evasive about his core convictions on this question. And if President Obama really believed that single-payer was superior, surely he could have made this clear to the voting public. It would give us a sense of what he’s trying to achieve over the longer term and how it shapes his efforts at legislative compromise, etc.

So yes, I’d say that Christie’s clarity is quite different. Dave wrote the post on Christie on the 14th, and he notes that the governor’s popularity isn’t terribly high. This is true. But over the last few days his disapproval rating has increased by 10 points. Given that this comes after Christie stepped up his combative rhetoric, this tells us something. The NJEA, the union that has received the fiercest criticism from Christie, represents 200,000 workers, a number magnified by the households that depend on the state’s relatively generous compensation for teachers. Christie hasn’t taken the easy road, suffice it to say. [I originally had a typo in this post -- my apologies to readers.]

Moreover, many other elected officials, including Mayor Bloomberg and President Clinton, proved very unpopular during the early phases of budget consolidation. It’s interesting that President Obama’s approval rating has plummeted during a period when he was doing the exact opposite of paring back spending.

One of Dave’s commenters, the felicitously named nhuixnhuix, made the following interesting observation:

Also interested in how similar Christie’s path so far has been to Schwarzenegger. Elected more because of how fed up people were with state government than anything. Gets a few substantive early compromise wins with Democratic legislature (workers comp in CA, pensions reform in NJ) and then proceeds to tack hard right, mock (“girlie men”) and attack opponents and interest groups (nurses in CA, teachers in NJ).We know where Schwarzenegger went after that (tacked back to the left to get reelected and then went on to become bvery very very unpopular). Interested if the pattern will be similar in NJ

But as a very informed friend reminded me yesterday, New Jersey’s constitutional structure is radically different from California’s. The governor has tremendous power in New Jersey — to appoint officials unilaterally, to impound spending, to line-item veto, etc. Schwarzenegger faced constraints that Christie does not.

Of course, this should also put a damper on the Christie for president boomlet. John Fund wrote a terrific column on the idea. I like the idea myself, but the federal government is a whole different ballgame.


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

Subscribe to National Review