The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Christie state of the state or state of the next campaign?

Since last January, the total number of people employed in New Jersey has grown by over 90,000, and the number of unemployed has dropped by nearly 30,000. We recorded our 5th consecutive year of private sector job growth, and the unemployment rate continues to steadily go down. We have attracted and retained companies — from Subaru USA to the Philadelphia 76ers to Sandoz. We have grown our economy and more people are working, supporting their families and knowing the power of going to work every day in New Jersey today than one year ago. We have done this while holding the line on government spending and government employment. We also extended the successful cap on a key driver of property tax growth.  And we passed real criminal justice reform in New Jersey. This bipartisan reform of the bail system keeps violent offenders off the streets and gives non-violent offenders who often sit in jail because they can’t afford bail a chance to reclaim their lives.

More interesting, however, was the outline of a stump speech, maybe even a presidential campaign theme. Here was the set up:

Economic growth is low by post-war recovery standards. America’s leadership in the world is called into question because of a pattern of indecision and inconsistency. During this time of uncertainty it seems our leaders in Washington would rather stoke division for their own political gain. And this culture of divisiveness and distrust has seeped into our communities and our neighborhoods.As I traveled the country over the last year, this anxiety was the most palpable emotion I saw and felt. I saw it on the streets of Chicago and felt it in the suburbs of Maryland. I heard it from farmers in Kansas and from teachers in Colorado. I felt it from veterans in Maine and from workers in Arkansas. But the wisest words came from an 82-year-old woman in Florida. She grabbed my hand and asked me a simple, but powerful question: “What’s happened to our country? We used to control events. Now events control us.”

Then he burnished his conservative bona fides: “We know that, time and again, economic growth has delivered the most good for the most people. And we know that the policies of lower taxes and less intrusive government have created higher economic growth and better paying jobs for our middle class. We know that a commitment to education at every level is another key to a better tomorrow.” He criticized the failure to embrace school reforms we know are needed and the general “sense of drift.”

The message that followed was all about renewal: “Let me be clear. We need to address this anxiety head on. We need to renew the spirit and the hopes of our state, our country and our people. A renewal of our commitment to the hard-working families who are the backbone of our state. A renewal of our commitment to the simple belief that our people deserve better than a bloated national government that imposes costs on our states which suffocate our people. A renewal of our commitment to the ideal — and the hard work to make it happen — that New Jersey’s best days can lie ahead. That we don’t have to accept anything less.”

As evidence of his commitment to opportunity for all, Christie reviewed his progress in Camden:

Did we just throw money at the problem as has been done before? No. We demanded partnership and accountability, and we are getting results. Through the economic opportunity act of 2013 a city that has suffered from divestment for decades is now seeing a new tomorrow. $600 million dollars of private investment in Camden in the last year alone. In a city suffering from epidemic crime, we acted boldly. We terminated the city police department and, partnering with the county, put a new metro division on the streets with 400 officers for the same price we were paying for 260. The results? Murder down 51%. Firearm assaults down by 1/3. All violent crime down 22%. Police are working with neighborhood groups to bring calm and peace across the city. In Camden schools, we partnered with the local groups to bring new leadership to the schools and a renewed accountability to the classroom. The Urban Hope Act has expanded opportunity and new schools are being built once again in Camden in a public/ private partnership. Hope and optimism are up — fear of failure is down. In Camden’s downtown, a new medical school and new investment by Rutgers University is helping to bring bright new citizens to Camden’s neighborhoods.

In short, his pitch — or the beginning of a pitch — will reassure conservatives that it is not about  “bipartisanship” or “getting along,” but renewal. He can say others talk about it, but he has been doing it — even in a deep blue state where the answer to everything had been to raise taxes and spend more money.

The theme, it seems, will cover American renewal in the world as well. The latter is a meaty topic deserving of its own speech. The international situation is troublesome precisely because the United States is not controlling the bullies, not making the world more stable and not defending innocents against very bad people. We are learning quite frankly that in a lot of cases we are the world’s policemen, because if we don’t track them down over there they come after U.S. cities, U.S. airliners and U.S. newspapers. He brought law and order to Camden, and he can set out to reduce the chaos and instability overseas.

The next step will be defining how Christie wants to renew American prosperity and opportunity at home and its strength abroad. But at least he looking beyond New Jersey. And if Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush both run, he can become the “not been there and done that” candidate of reform. He can be the guy from the neighborhood, not a wealthy establishment figure. And he can be the guy who has been governing the last few years, struggling under Obama’s presidency and coming back from a natural disaster. It is promising.

We’ll see if he avoids further controversies and is able to lay out a compelling vision. If so, there is no reason he can’t remain in the top tier and in the hunt for the nomination.