New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie wants to get his mojo back.
The can-do, tough-as-nails, straight-talking governor has spent the last several months tossed around in the shifting seas of presidential politics. Jeb Bush raided his prospective campaign piggy bank. Scott Walker claimed his old crown—the conservative fighter willing to put taxpayers ahead of government workers. And an imprecise vaccine comment in London left Christie fleeing reporters has he sped to his plane back home.
Just last week, during a speech in Washington, a deflated Christie seemed to distance himself from his own state’s economic record, blaming the state legislature for the status quo. “I don’t know exactly whose economic plan has been implemented or not,” he said of the state he runs. It was a far cry from the victorious Christie, who declared upon winning reelection in 2013, “I did not seek a second term to do small things. I sought a second term to finish the job. Now watch me do it.”
“Now” will finally arrive on Tuesday, his advisers promise, when he reveals a new plan to address New Jersey’s struggling finances, a new schedule for another statewide tour and a well-kept secret: For months, he has been breaking bread with his one-time union foes, the New Jersey Education Association, discussing further reforms to the state’s underwater state pension system Christie began to reform with controversial legislation during his first term.
“I did not come here just to identify the problem, shrug my shoulders and return to business as usual,” he plans to say later today, returning to his old rhetorical style. “And that is why I am here today to ask you to do what may be politically difficult, but what is morally and physically the right thing to do. This is what it is about. Coming together. Thinking differently. Serving the people. Addressing the long term. This is how we get things done.”
The shift in tone is long overdue for a governor who has never played defense as well as offense. Just a year ago, he was a formidable force in the Republican Party, with a mainline connection to the establishment looking for someone to take on Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. But an uneven message, a distracting criminal investigation over his staff’s involvement in a politically motivated road closure and deteriorating economic conditions in his state have tarnished his reputation.
“There’s an opportunity here for a comeback, because the press will love that,” says John Weaver, a former presidential strategist for Republicans John McCain and Jon Huntsman. “But they have to act fast or he will go down in history having squandered a great opportunity.”
The state’s fiscal situation, which will be the focus on Tuesday’s address, may prove the problem least fixable by a quick shift in strategy. On Monday, just a day before the planned pivot, a state judge ruled that Christie had failed to live up to his own signature legislative accomplishment by failing to fully fund the state’s share of recalculated public employee pensions. In her ruling, state judge Mary Jocobson took a shot at Christie’s public claims to have achieved a historic reforms during his first term, since he had since decided not to fund the state’s share of his own plan. “The governor now takes the unusual position in this court of claiming that this legislative contractual guarantee, which embodied significant reforms for which he took substantial credit with great national fanfare, violates the New Jersey Constitution,” she wrote.
Christie has promised to appeal the ruling which requires him to spend $1.57 billion more on pensions this year, arguing that other state governors have also failed to fully fund the program in the past. But such explanations won’t make good campaign slogans. In part because of the standoff, credit-ratings agencies have repeatedly cut New Jersey’s standing, a fact that could be easily used against the governor in 2016 campaign ads.
Christie’s pre-campaign messaging will also need some attention, as the early state voting map provides him with few credible paths to the nomination. “Christie’s path has narrowed considerably,” said one veteran GOP operative, who is not yet working for a 2016 presidential contender. “Lesser-known candidates have thicker skin with the media and even Rand Paul exhibits more discipline.”
On the road in Iowa or New Hampshire, Christie’s message has thus far boiled down largely to his personality, a move that worked well through two elections in New Jersey. He tells audiences of his family upbringing in an attempt to turn his legendarily brash persona into an asset. “You’ll always know what I believe and you’ll always know where I stand,” he said in Iowa last month.
But the personality pitch depends on a state record to back it up, and may need to be refined for voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. That’s where a potential truce with the unions could come in handy. Just a few years ago, union leaders were circulating an email joking about Christie’s death, and the governor was regularly lobbing words like “greed and self-interest” in the direction of the union. Now Christie has another talking point to add to his claim that he can bring conservative ideas to a blue state and make divided government work.
The New Jersey teacher’s union was a party to the lawsuit that resulted in Monday’s decision, but in a statement to reporters, Christie aides said the new negotiations represented a new chapter in the relationship. “The issue has come full circle – back in 2010 and 2011 when Governor Christie first took on pension and health benefits reform, the NJEA was opposed to any changes,” reads the guidance from the governor’s office. “But today, just five years later, the Governor has reached out to a political adversary and offered them partnership in working toward a solution and they have accepted.”
Any new chapter is a welcome one for Christie at this point. But this won’t be enough. In the coming months, he will need several more to win the nomination of his party.