It seems as if it happened sometime in the last century, but it was really just four years ago. On November 5, 2013, Chris Christie was reelected as governor of New Jersey in a landslide of epic proportions. The Republican’s 60.3 percent of the vote in what had become a deep blue state was a ringing affirmation of the policies he pursued in his first term and, for at least a couple of months, made Christie seem as if he was a serious contender for the presidency in 2016.
But as voters went to the polls today to choose his successor, Christie’s running mate in 2013, Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno was headed to certain defeat largely because of her association with the incumbent. Christie’s approval rating in the latest Suffolk University poll is 14 percent, with 77 percent viewing him negatively, numbers that make him among the most unpopular American governors in recent memory.
The answer as to how this reversal of fortune came about is generally summed up in one word: Bridgegate. The scandal in which members of the governor’s staff created a days-long traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge as a way of retaliating against the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., was first revealed only a month after Christie’s reelection and the governor’s reputation never recovered from the blow. Rather than a triumphant platform from which he would move effortlessly onto the national political stage, his second term was a nightmare that was plagued by investigations into the scandal and a futile presidential run that ended in humiliation.
But understanding what happened to Christie involves more than just a rehashing of the bizarre story of how a politically inspired traffic jam derailed a dazzling career. The roots of his precipitous fall from grace were already apparent even at the moments of his greatest success and provide an object lesson to other politicians. Even in this hyper-partisan age in which ideology and partisanship dominate and abrasive personalities exert a strong appeal for many voters, arrogance and entitlement are a formula for certain disaster.
Christie first won the governorship in 2009 in large measure because he was seen as a scrappy everyman rather than a standard politician. Running against incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine — a millionaire Wall Street executive and former U.S. senator whose imperious style grated on voters when he moved to Trenton — Christie benefited not only from his opponent’s record of tax hikes but also from Corzine’s not so subtle digs at the Republican’s portly stature. In a country where weight problems are endemic, it was easy for people to identity with Christie, who poked fun at himself by pulling out a donut on the David Letterman Show and eating it.
Christie was a breath of fresh air after Corzine and once in office he became something of a YouTube star with videos of his brash, unfiltered answers to voters at town-hall meetings and confrontations with union leaders going viral. He was also able to forge a fragile coalition with moderate Democrats that enabled many of his first term successes on budget and spending issues.
But even as his tough-guy approach won cheers it was also clear that he was starting to see his office as his due rather than a responsibility on loan from the voters. In 2010, he refused to postpone a planned family trip to Disneyworld in order to stay on duty during a blizzard that hit the state. The following year he was lambasted for using his state helicopter to fly to see his son play a high-school baseball game before flying it back to Trenton to host a dinner for Republican donors from Iowa.
Yet so long as Christie was seen as a skillful manager of a state that has been dogged by decades of dysfunction and corruption, his approval numbers remained sky high. He cruised to reelection in 2013 and was assumed to be a formidable contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.
When the news of the plot to tie up bridge traffic in September 2013 broke in the weeks after his reelection triumph, Christie seemed in denial about the implications of the scandal. He even joked about it saying, “I worked the cones, actually. Unbeknownst to everybody I was actually the guy out there, in overalls and a hat.”
But the same caustic, sarcastic tone that had enabled him to tell voters to “shut up” at town halls and get away with it was no longer working. This baffled the governor. To Christie’s surprise, his constituents considered government officials deliberately inflicting misery on the already afflicted commuters of northern New Jersey just to settle a political score with a local mayor to be as bad, if not far worse, then the sort of routine corruption and bloated spending he had been elected to stop.
Though no one could ever prove that the governor rather than his overzealous loyal aides was behind the scheme, Bridgegate resonated with voters not just because of its egregious and gratuitous nature. It fatally wounded Christie because it seemed very much in keeping with the same high-handed tone with which he had governed.
In practical terms, the scandal ensured that the Democrats who had made common cause with him in his first term stayed away from him in the second. But it also stripped him both of his aura of competence and his reputation as a regular guy who had worked his way to the top. He could still talk like an ordinary sports fan doing appearances on talk-radio shows, but he was also now someone who was known as a crony of wealthy NFL team owners who could use luxury box seats any time he liked.
Undeterred by either polls or common sense, Christie ran for president anyway in 2016 and flopped badly, though not before demolishing Senator Marco Rubio in a debate, thereby helping another wealthy crony, Donald Trump, whom he would soon endorse. The Trump connection added to his woes at home. That was not so much because of the GOP nominee’s unpopularity in New Jersey but because Christie’s craven attitude toward Trump inspired Internet mockery and memes. In the end, Christie’s loyalty to Trump would go unrewarded, as the new president understood just how politically toxic the governor had become.
Once Christie acted as if his public office was a private opportunity to which he was entitled rather than a public trust, he was finished.
The final blow to Christie’s reputation would come in the summer of 2017. After a standoff with the legislature led to a government shutdown of state facilities, Christie was filmed hosting a family party at a state-owned beach house at a park that was closed to everyone else. The public’s tolerance for the arrogance that had enabled him to dismiss the complaints of voters, union heads, and fellow politicians alike, evaporated once they came to see him as a political thug and someone looking to get as much out of his office as he could. Having come into power cheered as an everyman, he exits it as a laughingstock immortalized by a meme in which he is forever seated in a beach chair.
Some observers remain confused as to why so many voters are prepared to tolerate a figure like Donald Trump who, as Christie did, strikes a populist tone and doesn’t play by the conventional rules of conduct, but were so willing to punish the governor for his transgressions. The answer is obvious. For all of his faults, his supporters perceive Trump, at least up to this point, as not being self-interested. Once Christie acted as if his public office was a private opportunity to which he was entitled rather than a public trust, he was finished. No matter how high they may rise, politicians of all political stripes should never forget that the same thing could easily happen to them.