Chris Christie vs. the world (or, at least, Democratic governors)

September 12, 2012

Chris Christie likes to mix it up; this much we know.

But increasingly, the pugilistic New Jersey governor isn't just going at it with reporters or hecklers, but also with fellow governors. And in a way that governors historically have avoided.


(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

A spat with California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) in recent days has quickly devolved into the kind of war of words you might see in a second-grade schoolyard. And it's just the latest example of Christie openly feuding with another governor of the opposite party.

Christie has also spent time this year engaging with Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy (D) and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), meaning he has now gone at it with 15 percent of the Democratic governors in this country. (Math!)

But while Christie was once riding high and touting the "Jersey Comeback," his state's worsening economic outlook makes exchanges like these tougher for him to win.

The battle with Brown apparently began when, at the Republican National Convention two weeks ago, Christie told the California delegation that the state had “made the bad choice by going with an old retread" -- a reference to Brown's past tenure as the Golden State's governor (and possibly a shot at the septuagenarian's age).

In recent days, the fight with Brown has made a sharp turn for the lowest common denominator, with Brown making a series of cracks apparently directed at Christie's weight. He has suggested Christie wouldn't fit in the middle seat on a Southwest Airlines flight and even challenged him to a fitness contest. Ugh.

Aides and other lawmakers have also gotten in on the action, and Christie turned down Brown's challenge with another jab. ”I don’t think the fact that Jerry Brown can do more pull-ups will put one more person to work in California or help them with their abysmal tax situation," he said.

Christie's previous feuds with other governors have been no less heated.

Back in February, Christie suggested that Connecticut residents would flee the state to New Jersey after Malloy proposed a tax increase.

“Let me tell you something, I’ll be at the border to take Connecticut’s jobs when he does it,” Christie said. “He’s still got to read the governors’ owner’s manual.”

The feud has lived on for a while now, with Malloy taking a shot at Christie now that New Jersey's economy has begun to struggle. "How’s that working out for him?” Malloy said in late July.

Christie's feud with O'Malley has also been ongoing. But that's a little more understandable, given that O'Malley is head of the partisan Democratic Governors Association, which is hoping to unseat Christie in next year's election -- and the fact that both O'Malley and Christie are seen as potential presidential candidates down the line.

Still, the battles have been very pitched, with O'Malley recently hitting the fast-rising unemployment rate in New Jersey and suggesting Christie would deliver an "angry, Don Rickles keynote" address at the Republican National Convention. Christie, for his part, has said O'Malley is "not that smart, he’s not that good, but he is flippant, so I give him credit for that.”

Ouchy.

This kind of feuding, of course, isn't altogether new in politics. But it's exceedingly rare at the gubernatorial level, where governors often mind their own business and refrain from judging each other's management of their states. After all, governors, unlike senators and House members, don't often have to work with each other to do their jobs.

Christie strategist Mike DuHaime said that the governor is merely trying to have a policy discussion with other governors.

"Unlike many politicians, Governor Christie is unafraid to speak his mind when he disagrees with someone on a policy front," DuHaime said. "There's nothing wrong with honest public policy differences between governors being debated publicly. ... It's okay for both sides to debate which approach is more effective."

In reality, it was probably only a matter of time before Christie started mixing it up with other governors. After all, that's a big part of who he is as a politician, and as he carves out more and more of a national profile, he seems anxious to compare his own record to that of other state executives -- particularly Democrats.

In the cases of Malloy and Brown, it's pretty clear that Christie was willfully picking a fight. Comments like the ones he made are kibble for the news media, and Christie knows that.

Christie is an experienced litigator, and he's more than comfortable with such dialogue. The question, as New Jersey's economic situation shows signs of deteriorating -- the state's unemployment rate has risen sharply in recent months -- is whether it's smart for him to keep criticizing other governors' economic policies.

By doing do, he's opening himself up to his own criticism -- and the results in New Jersey aren't the trump card they once were.

But we wouldn't expect it to stop anytime soon. Christie has made little secret that he's open to a future presidential run, and part of that is building on the reputation he's forged as a tough talker. Getting into it with other governors is a great way to reinforce that, play up his own record and score points with the GOP base.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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