CNN reported that for his annual January address to the legislature the chief executive “in the middle of one of the worst scandals” of his tenure got a “cordial bipartisan welcome” and appeared “determined to acquit himself well.” Gov. Chris Christie addressing the New Jersey legislature? No, that was Bill Clinton’s Jan. 27, 1998, State of the Union address just days after the Monica Lewinsky story broke and a day after he falsely claimed he “did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
There are plenty of differences between the two incidents, the two leaders, the two media environments in which the leaders served. But Christie hopes that like Clinton he can continue to do the people’s business and maintain his approval ratings both because voters like him and because he is doing what they voted for him to do. The good news (and the bad) for Christie is that he lives in a saturated media environment as different from 1998 as 1998 was from 1968. That means the media, deprived of new material, eventually exhausts itself and moves on, absent new fuel for its fire.
So Christie used the speech both to remind New Jersey voters of the things he’s done and to educate Republicans outside the state about the fact that he’s followed a conservative path. He boasted of four balanced budgets, pension and benefit reform, a cap on property taxes, significant school and criminal justice reform and a large drop in unemployment. He promised to lower property taxes, pass further school reform and create what he called an “attitude of choice,” an awkward phrasing for what Republicans have been doing on the national level, tackling entitlements, which threaten to swallow the whole budget. And he challenged the legislature to put politics aside and continue working in a bipartisan fashion. That has essentially been Christie’s pattern, a pattern born of necessity in a blue state where both houses of the legislature are controlled by the other party.
For anyone living under a rock, Christie made clear he was sorry for the bridge scandal. (“I am the governor and I am ultimately responsible for all that happens on my watch — both good and bad. Without a doubt we will cooperate with all appropriate inquiries to ensure this breach of trust does not happen again.”) But this was short and disciplined, not an operatic display of contrition. Instead, he made a quick pivot: “I also want to assure the people of New Jersey today that what has occurred does not define us or our state. This administration and this legislature will not allow the work that needs to be done to improve the people’s lives in New Jersey to be delayed. I am the leader of this state and its people and I stand here today proud to be both. And always determined to do better.”)
Democrats and right-wing Republicans hope he’s mired in investigations and haunted by rotten headlines for years to come, and it is certainly possible the legislature could spend its time tying him up in knots. But the speech was a sort of challenge to the legislature — saying that Christie intends to govern and voters expect them to get things done as well. (“Even though the competition among the states is fierce, no state has shown more bipartisan cooperation over the last four years than New Jersey. Let’s do it again. Let’s resolve that in spite of politics, we will continue to put our people first. We will choose to do our jobs.”)
His staff was likely thrilled to see the New York Times headline “In Annual Address, Christie Turns Focus From Scandal to Policy,” followed by a straightforward account that he, “then sought to move the conversation forward, citing his accomplishments over the last four years and saying that he was focused on the daily job of governing . . . He outlined plans to extend the school day, lower taxes for homeowners and reduce urban crime. The level of detail was a marked change from his remarks last year, when he spent two-thirds of his speech recalling the toll that Hurricane Sandy had taken on the state, with tales of individual fortitude largely taking the place of policy initiatives.” It was, in that respect, Clintonian.
In battling the overreaching media and giddy Democrats (I repeat myself) Christie continues to earn support from fellow governors. But the episode and its ripples may also change his focus from Sandy to policy, from bipartisanship as an end unto itself to specific policy achievements he can tout in 2016. (The best shield in a political storm is often the determination to talk about things voters want and then label opponents as partisan opportunists.)The focus on an agenda more relevant to the rest of the country and more explicitly conservative may help him in the long run. As they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.