Chris Christie’s veto strategy


New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) (Photo: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Governors who run for president have an advantage over members of Congress: They can point to a record of action and management, by virtue of the nature of their jobs.

But the partisan makeups of state legislatures mean governors’ experience can vary dramatically. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) have all had Republican-dominated legislatures to work with. If they seek the White House, each will be able to tout conservative legislation they championed, shepherded and signed. These include curbing public unions for Walker, fighting Common Core education standards  for Jindal, cutting taxes for Pence.

That’s not the story for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), whose legislature has been run by Democrats during his entire tenure in office. If Christie takes the presidential plunge, he won’t be able to brandish the resume of accomplishments the others have; the measures that could easily pass in Wisconsin or Louisiana or Indiana don’t even make it to a vote in Trenton.

But in recent weeks, Christie has embraced the leverage in one advantage that is securely his: New Jersey’s constitution invests more power in the governor than virtually any other state — including a robust veto and line-item veto, the sole power to appoint every Cabinet official, including the Attorney General, along with Supreme Court justices, county prosecutors and county judges.

Christie’s veto pen will get the most attention on the campaign trail. In just the last two weeks, Christie has vetoed legislation that would have imposed strict limits on the size of gun magazines, and legislation that would have raised income taxes on those making more than $1 million a year. He also cut $27 million in spending added by Democrats in this year’s budget proposal.

In May, he nixed a Democratic bill that would have allowed 15 days of early voting, which he called “hasty, counterproductive and less reliable” than the current system. Last year, Christie vetoed $7.5 million in family planning funding state Democrats wanted included in the budget, the 5th time he had struck such legislation. In 2012, he conditionally vetoed legislation that would have legalized same-sex marriage; a court ordered the state to perform same-sex marriages in 2013.

(While not exactly a veto, Christie has used his executive power to begin extricating New Jersey from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade agreement between Mid-Atlantic and New England states. On Monday, New Jersey published a proposal to repeal rules associated with RGGI, which is likely to take effect after a comment period ends in September.)

In total, Christie has used his veto pen 314 times, according to an administration spokesman, far more than any other recent Garden State governor.

Those vetoes are likely to show up in mailings, stump speeches and, eventually, television advertisements once Christie starts pitching himself to Iowa caucus-goers and New Hampshire primary voters.

“Christie’s accounts of his vetoes can help him a little. Specific facts are more persuasive than airy generalizations,” said John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College and a former Republican National Committee staffer.

Highlighting disagreements with Democratic legislators through vetoes is a proven winner in Republican primaries. During both his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, Mitt Romney, another Republican governor of a state with an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, highlighted some of the 844 vetoes he issued during his single four-year term in office.

“I know how to veto. I like vetoes. I’ve vetoed hundreds of spending appropriations as governor,” Romney said in one advertisement during his 2008 campaign.

Romney’s veto record didn’t have much of an impact on state policy: 85 percent of the members of the Massachusetts legislature were Democrats, and they overrode his veto a startling 99.6 percent of the time. But at least one veto stood out: In 2004, he nixed a measure that would have provided in-state tuition discounts to undocumented immigrants; seven years later, Romney highlighted that veto as a key contrast between himself and Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), who had signed similar legislation.

But there are limits to how effective a veto-based campaign could be. Christie will never be able to pitch himself as the most conservative possible candidate in the race, Pitney said, because he isn’t.

“Running as Mister Veto isn’t going to impress voters who understand the partisan composition of Congress,” Pitney added. “Republicans are likely to control the House for the next few years. A GOP House would not send President Christie any socialist legislation.”

Still, hailing from a blue state, the vetoes are likely to play a role in Christie’s 2016 campaign. Without a conservative legislature to help him build a resume, standing athwart the Democratic steam train yelling “stop” could prove an effective message among voters who belong to what is sometimes derisively called the Party of No.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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