I feel something washing over me. I’m standing in New Jersey, so it’s probably red ink. No, wait a minute — it’s glowing ink! It could only be one thing: more conservative hagiography about the Garden State’s GOP governor.
Chris Christie is so not one of us that articles like “Christie Is One of Us” — a new contribution to the genre, from National Review’s Noah Glyn — are churned out regularly as the governor’s smitten admirers, from Ann Coulter to NR staffers, labor to convince us of what they’ve convinced themselves of: that an ostensibly gruff, internally milquetoast, progressive-lite, pro-Islamist Republican must be the second coming of Ronald Reagan because he has managed to make a basket-case blue state marginally less of a basket case. And “marginally” is the operative word. Glyn’s valentine to Christie is unfortunately timed. It was published just as Moody’s declared that Christie’s claim to have put New Jersey’s fiscal house in order is grossly overstated. More on that in a bit.
As it happens, I am a citizen of New Jersey, so my reasons for examining his record closely go beyond my day job. It is based on that examination that I see Christie as wildly overrated. Sure, his YouTube smackdowns of overmatched lefty hacks are catnip for the Right. The routine gets old fast, though. The tantrums have become as mundane as “Pass the salt.” Christie now erupts not only at teachers’ union drones but at NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly, New York congressman Pete King, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, anti-sharia “crazies” who resist Islamic supremacism, all those “completely intellectually dishonest” conservatives who think Romneycare may not have been a fabulous idea, and, one infers, just about anyone who happens by when Governor Grumpy is having a bad day . . . which seems to be often. Plus, there’s not much rain in them big winds: Christie’s bully-boy études do not drown out his nonstop symphony to “bipartisanship,” nor obscure that it is “compromise” with the Left that sends him into (not infrequent) frissons of self-adulation.
To be sure, Christie is a very talented politician and a deft extemporaneous speaker. He has done some good things in a heavily Democratic state dominated by municipal unions. He is certainly, as blue-state governors go, better than average. That does not make him a conservative, much less the “consistent conservative” of Glyn’s portrayal.
But job approval is relative. When Christie sought the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2009, I preferred Steve Lonegan, who actually is a consistent conservative. I was deeply disappointed when Christie made like a Democrat and attacked Lonegan’s conservative proposals: a flat tax, a $5 billion spending cut, and the shuttering of government agencies. It was what you’d expect from a cardboard cut-out northeastern GOP moderate proponent of progressive taxation and the welfare state — which is exactly what Christie has proven to be. Still, Christie was clearly preferable to the loathsome incumbent Democrat (and now part-time Obama bundler, full-time embezzlement suspect), Jon Corzine.
Politics is not about getting everything you want; it’s about choosing between available alternatives. My choice in New Jersey, a union-dominated Democratic-machine state, is the hard Left’s unsustainable statism or the more realistic Christie’s moderate (but ultimately unsustainable) statism. That’s no contest. But neither is public approval (especially in this state) a testament to Christie’s conservatism. At a new high of 59 percent, a plateau at which he surely will not stay (Farleigh Dickinson puts it at 56 percent), Christie’s approval rating is just a few points higher than the national approval rating of President Obama, who also remains popular in our blue, blue Garden State.
In the post Glyn targets, my point was that Christie would be a poor choice as Mitt Romney’s running mate — a conclusion with which Glyn actually agrees. If the objective in making the pick is to improve Romney’s chances by balancing the ticket with someone more conservative than Romney, that purpose would not be served by selecting a near-clone of Romney. Another moderate northeastern GOP governor with a soft spot for socialized medicine is not going to energize tea partiers and other Romney-indifferent conservatives. Furthermore, my principal contention in the post, not mentioned by Glyn, was that Christie has been adamant about not being ready to be president. Given that readiness to assume the office is generally taken to be the salient qualification for the No. 2 slot, Christie would seem to be unsuitable on his own account. In any event, my main purpose was not to trash Governor Christie — as a governor for New Jersey, he may be the best we can do at the moment. My post addressed the claim, still making the rounds, that he’d make a good veep choice.
But if Mr. Glyn wants to make this about Christie’s record, fine. Let’s begin with the centerpiece of Glyn’s critique, which purports to address my complaints about what he gently calls “Christie’s differing views on Islam in America” — but what would more accurately be described as Christie’s Islamist sympathies.
I have to say Glyn “purports” to address my complaints because, although he correctly says they are my “main bone of contention,” he studiously avoids describing them. As Glyn must know — because it is linked to in my post — I have laid out my objections to Christie’s (literal) embrace of Islamic supremacists in exacting detail. To summarize, not only did Christie appoint to the state bench a lawyer named Sohail Mohammed, who, besides slandering the Justice Department’s prosecutions of (now convicted) jihadists, served as a board member of an Islamic-supremacist organization (the American Muslim Union); as U.S. attorney, Christie also personally championed a Hamas operative named Mohammed Qatanani and, more shockingly, put his federal office in the service of that operative, in opposition to the federal government’s worthy effort to deport him. Reportedly, U.S. Attorney Christie physically embraced Qatanani, praising him as “a man of great good will,” at an Islamic center in Passaic that was closely linked to the Holy Land Foundation Hamas-financing case — which the Bush Justice Department was prosecuting at that very time. (Indeed, Qatanani’s predecessor as imam of the mosque was one of the defendants convicted in the HLF case — and Qatanani praised and prayed for all those defendants while calling for the end of the “occupation” by Israel and the U.S. of, respectively, Palestine and Iraq.)
Instead of outlining the extensive case I’ve made, Glyn changes the subject to Pamela Geller’s bracing declaration that Christie has taken the Garden State on “its first step to becoming a sharia state” — as if that were an accurate synopsis of what I’ve said. Was Ms. Geller’s statement bombastic? Well, no more so than Christie’s typically sulfurous outburst, upon being called on the Sohail Mohammed appointment, that those who dared question him were bigoted sharia “crazies” who opposed the appointee just because he is a Muslim. But regardless, the case I made was not bombast. It was built on facts that Glyn fails even to mention, much less attempt to refute.
Glyn’s account of the objections lodged against Christie in a recent NRO column by Daniel Pipes and Steve Emerson, two conservative experts on Islamic supremacism, is incomplete. Glyn implies that Pipes and Emerson took issue only with Christie’s bloviating against the NYPD’s surveillance of New Jersey Muslims.
In reality, the NYPD issue was only one facet of a broad indictment against Christie’s Islamist sympathies, which Pipes and Emerson corroborated with extensive citations to supporting materials, as is their wont. It also included Christie’s aforementioned support of Qatanani; his appointment of Sohail Mohammed; and his endorsement of the firing of a state employee for burning three pages of the Koran while off duty at a demonstration (the employee got his job back upon successfully suing the state for violating his constitutional rights). Pipes and Emerson did not merely “disapprove of Christie’s outspokenness against the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslim college students in New Jersey,” as Glyn puts it. Here’s what they actually said:
Christie has hugged a terrorist-organization member, abridged free-speech rights, scorned concern over Islamization, and opposed law-enforcement counterterrorism efforts. Whenever an issue touching on Islam arises, Christie takes the Islamist side against those — the [Department of Homeland Security], state senators, the NYPD, even the ACLU — who worry about lawful Islamism eroding the fabric of American life.
Glyn even gets wrong the sliver of the Pipes-Emerson column he discusses. Christie blasted the NYPD surveillance in a manner that, as Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin points out, echoed the objections of Islamist organizations like CAIR — complaining about the law-enforcement attention given to Muslim businesses and mosques. I suppose it is understandable that a pol who hugs a Hamas guy at a Hamas-friendly mosque would feel that way. But to most of the “us” that Glyn claims Christie is “one of,” the NYPD surveillance seems like a pretty good idea. Yet, when New York Republican Pete King said as much, Christie (natch) said King was just a know-nothing congressman who was using Christie’s name to get himself on TV, not a famous former prosecutor of terrorists like Christie.
Well, maybe I don’t know as much about prosecuting terrorists as does the governor, with his all his vast experience, but I vaguely remember that defendants often connected at Muslim businesses and were urged to commit terrorist atrocities at mosques — where, in addition to plotting attacks, jihadists also stored and exchanged weapons. I also seem to recall local police and FBI agents’ being upbraided by an angry public after both the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and 9/11 because they failed — out of fear of being accused of profiling, bigotry, etc. — to investigate what was going on in certain Islamic communities that everyone knew were hotbeds of fundamentalism.
Maybe Christie started to remember that, too; or maybe he just calculated that he’d gotten himself on the wrong side of the surveillance debate. Whatever the case, he retreated, lamely implying that his beef was not really with what NYPD did but with the fact that they’d failed to inform him — Christie having been Jersey’s U.S. attorney when the NYPD surveillance began.
Glyn buys this feint hook, line, and sinker. This is the other side of the story: Even if Christie did not know what the NYPD was up to, the local police in New Jersey did. NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly has explained that Newark police officers accompanied NYPD cops on the surveillance operations and were fully briefed. (The then-director of Newark’s police department denies that his officers participated but admits that he received NYPD’s extensive report; his former deputy admits that the locals showed the NYPD around Newark but — shock, shock — claims they had no idea why they were doing it.)
Christie’s beef is the same one the FBI and the Justice Department grouse about constantly: The NYPD insists on operating outside the federally controlled Joint Terrorism Task Force structure. That is, because New York City remains the jihad’s top terror target, because the failure of the feds to share intelligence is legendary, and because many terror plots targeting the city are hatched outside the city (such as the 1993 WTC bombing, almost all preparations for which were carried out in, yes, New Jersey), Ray Kelly’s department does not permit the FBI and the Justice Department to control or limit its counterterrorism investigations. At best, even if we give Christie the benefit of the doubt on channeling CAIR’s “Islamophobia” campaign, he is being petty over a turf battle.
Most of Glyn’s remaining portrayal of Christie as a “consistent conservative” is mistaken — even apart from its conspicuous failure to mention Christie’s squishiness on illegal immigration and Second Amendment rights. Yes, Christie is to be commended for state-pension reforms, but he has neither dealt realistically with the magnitude of the problem nor actually balanced the budget.
New Jersey has an unfunded pension liability of over $41 billion. To “balance” the budget (as the state constitution requires), Christie is doing what his spendaholic predecessors have done: He is pretending that he is not required to make the state’s full pension payment. (What do you suppose would happen to a CEO in a private-sector, SEC-regulated business who tried that?) He has skimped on more than $5 billion — money he is spending on government programs (or, as he puts it, “core services”). The pension bomb is kicked down the road, to explode on some future governor, who will have to make the tough choice Christie is ducking: pay the mounting debt, slash pension benefits, or drastically cut other spending.
Christie also claims to have “balanced” the budget without raising taxes. That is true only insofar as income taxes are concerned. But the real problem in Jersey is property taxes. They are among the highest in the country and have risen sharply on Christie’s watch. To be fair, Christie was right to slash state rebates that lessened the pain: Property taxes are a local issue, and the rebates effectively subsidized the out-of-control municipal spending. By reducing the rebates, Christie appropriately encourages property owners to rein in their local governments. That’s as it ought to be. Moreover, as Glyn notes, Christie got the legislature to cap local property-tax increases at 2 percent — not exactly a boon to home owners who need tax decreases, but better than we were doing under Christie’s predecessors. But it is disingenuous to tell homeowners who are paying more that their taxes haven’t been raised. And it is irresponsible to pretend, as Christie does, that New Jersey can reduce taxes and achieve fiscal sanity without paying down its mushrooming debt and radically slashing the size and scope of government.
Truly laughable is Glyn’s claim that Christie’s response to Obamacare shows he is a “consistent conservative.” Unlike Republican governors across the country, Christie declined to sign New Jersey onto the multi-state lawsuit against the “Affordable Care Act” (now being weighed by the Supreme Court). His handwringing about needing more time to study the 2,000-page statute and being reluctant to expend state funds on the suit was insincere: Christie is an accomplished lawyer, the issues are well known, and the filing fee would have set the state back by only $1,000.
The dirty little secret is that Christie is an Obamacare enthusiast — which is no doubt why he so staunchly defends Romneycare. As recently detailed by Mike Proto of Americans for Prosperity (whose New Jersey chapter is run by Christie’s aforementioned nemesis, Steve Lonegan), the governor has walked the tightrope of quietly facilitating Obamacare without overtly embarrassing his conservative rah-rah chorus. Not only has Christie shrunk from the court challenge; before the ink from Obama’s signature was dry, Christie joined Democratic governors in the rush to claim federal funds that Obamacare doles out to states that set up its hyper-regulated “high-risk” insurance pools. Apparently, Christie had studied the statute enough to know New Jersey’s haul could be $141 million; but with conservatives demanding a fight to overturn Obamacare, most Republican governors refused to apply.
The health-insurance-exchange legislation that Glyn applauds Christie for vetoing was passed, in part, because Christie had signaled support for Obamacare — which is also why Obama’s Health and Human Services Department sent seemingly compliant New Jersey an $8.5 million down payment. Christie’s veto came on the last possible day, only after weeks of conservative grumbling, and with a conciliatory message to Obama that “my Administration . . . stands ready to implement the Affordable Care Act if its provisions are ultimately upheld” by the Supreme Court. As Cato’s Michael Cannon observes, even if the justices uphold Obamacare, there is no requirement that states create its pernicious “exchange” bureaucracies. But Christie’s eagerness to submit is no surprise to Garden State conservatives. Proto notes that Christie speeches echo Obama’s desire for universal health insurance, and the governor consistently supports funding increases for “FamilyCare” — New Jersey’s version of the “public option,” which now extends taxpayer subsidies to families at 350 percent of the federal poverty level.
The brute fact is that, while Christie is not a hardcore statist, he is a mild progressive — which is to say, a “compassionate conservative” in the Bush mold who wants to make government “work,” not drastically reduce its size and scope. The governor likes government, particularly its “investments” in everything from green-energy boondoggles like his Offshore Wind Economic Development Act (because “climate change is real” and it is time to “defer to the experts” who say it is anthropogenic) to the creation of new state bureaucracies within existing state bureaucracies to provide government services for children and the elderly.
Thus, though New Jersey’s fiscal outlook continues to be bleak, with looming tens of billions in unfunded liabilities, Christie has just proposed to increase government spending. Not to worry though, because the governor insists, “We have left the dark times.”
Well . . . not exactly. To justify his increased spending, Christie did what progressives do: He declared we can afford all this government (and soon more) because, thanks to his bipartisan leadership, Jersey’s condition is so improved that growth will soon soar to 7.4 percent, with tax revenues consequently surging. This week, however, Moody’s burst his balloon. The investors’ service projected growth at only 3 percent for fiscal year 2013 — about what it is now — and surmised that the governor had significantly overstated revenues in trumpeting the state’s supposed recovery. (In 2011, Christie’s second year in office, both Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s downgraded New Jersey’s credit rating to Aa3 — only California and Illinois rank lower.)
Then the next shoe dropped: The state’s legislative budget officer (New Jersey’s analogue to the federal CBO) announced that revenue would fall $1.3 billion short of Christie’s projections — prompting the governor, with his usual grace, to inveigh, “Why would anybody with a functioning brain believe this guy?” and to belittle the budget officer as “the Dr. Kevorkian of the numbers.” By the next day, at least some functioning brains decided “Dr. Kevorkian” wasn’t so inept after all: Christie’s state treasurer conceded that revenues would come up nearly $700 million short of what Christie projected just two months ago. The treasurer also mentioned in passing that Christie will fill part of the gaping budget hole by diverting $260 million in transportation funds to other spending needs . . . and then borrowing $260 million in order to preserve the transportation spending. Christie, in fine Keynesian fettle, explains that this government spending cannot be cut because it is necessary to put people to work — New Jersey’s unemployment rate, at 9.1 percent, being even worse than the nation’s.
Borrowing more millions to pay current operating expenses — heaping more exorbitant debt, with interest, onto the backs of New Jersey’s children — is exactly the practice Christie lambasted his statist predecessor over. He promised to bring it to an end. But now the dilemma: Christie wants to keep his conservative cheerleaders cheering by cutting income taxes while preserving his “reach across the aisle” cred by not only maintaining but expanding the welfare state. As always, the “have it all” fantasy relies on the mirage of epic growth. When that growth inevitably fails to materialize, a governor can either get real or start playing budget voodoo with borrowed money. The “consistent conservative” has made his choice.
I’m far from the first to observe that there is much less to Chris Christie than meets the conservative ear. A blue state could — and usually does — do a lot worse than Christie for its governor. But if “Christie is one of us,” then a lot of “us” aren’t.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.