It wasn’t supposed to be this way for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
No doubt he imagined there would be national attention as he took the oath of office for a second term. No doubt he assumed that what he said in his second inaugural address would be scrutinized.
But context is everything in politics, and in the time between Christie’s impressive reelection victory in November and his snowy swearing-in on Tuesday, so much has changed.
Inauguration Day once might have focused on Christie, the GOP establishment favorite for the party’s presidential nomination; Christie, a Republican capable of winning blue states in a general election; Christie, a politician who had good relationships with many Democrats; Christie, a no-nonsense governor who led his state back after Hurricane Sandy.
This is the Christie who, a week after winning reelection, was on the cover of Time magazine with the subheadline, “How Chris Christie Can Win Over the GOP,” and the Christie who did a victory lap on the Sunday morning talk shows.
Instead, it was a day in which the national attention cast the governor in a far less flattering light, focusing on Christie, a politician now under state and federal investigations; Christie, a Republican whose hardball style may be more liability than asset; Christie, a governor whose administration is accused of threatening to hold Sandy relief money hostage; Christie, a perhaps future national candidate pinned down and politically damaged.
The message of his inaugural address was the same one Christie preached during and after his reelection campaign: that of seeking bipartisan cooperation with Democrats in his state, in contrast to the red-blue divisions that have left Washington in gridlock and legislative paralysis.
“We cannot fall victim to the attitude of Washington, D.C.,” Christie said. “The attitude that says, ‘I am always right and you are always wrong.’ The attitude that puts everyone into a box they are not permitted to leave. The attitude that puts political wins ahead of policy agreements. The belief that ‘compromise’ is a dirty word.”
That is the image the governor has tried to project and would try to project in a national campaign. That is the Christie who won a fifth of the African American vote in November and half of the Hispanic vote, who won a third of the Democratic vote in his reelection and two-thirds of independents.
Since then, Christie’s world has changed. First came revelations that some of his top advisers were involved in a decision to close down lanes approaching the George Washington Bridge in September, leading to massive traffic jams around Fort Lee, N.J. More recently have come charges from Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer (D) that Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno told her last spring that Sandy relief money for her city would depend on her support for a commercial development project in Hoboken.
The Pew Research Center offers a different portrait of Christie today. A poll suggests that the patina of him as a governor with bipartisan appeal has been chipped away by what has happened since he was reelected.
Compared with a year ago, favorable impressions of Christie have changed little — 40 percent in January 2013, 38 percent now. But his unfavorable ratings have doubled, from 17 percent to 34 percent. Among Democrats, they have jumped 25 points, to 43 percent negative, and among independents they are 18 points higher, at 33 percent negative.
Christie’s credibility is also at issue. The governor has said he knew nothing about his aides’ involvement in the lane closures. But almost six in 10 Americans said they do not believe that. Among Democrats, it’s two in three.
With the Hoboken mayor’s allegations, the battle between Christie and his accusers took on a sharply partisan tone. Until then, Christie had projected the image of a politician who apologized for what happened on the bridge and who said he would cooperate with any reasonable investigation. Now he is fighting back.
On Saturday, the governor’s office issued a lengthy and pointed statement in an effort to rebut Zimmer’s charges and to call her credibility into question. The governor’s allies also took aim at MSNBC, which has pounced on the story and which aired the first interview with Zimmer on Saturday’s “Up With Steve Kornacki.”
On Sunday, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) charged on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Democrats in the state legislature are on a “partisan witch hunt” in their efforts to damage the governor. On Monday, Guadagno denied the charges from Zimmer, who said she met with the U.S. attorney’s office on Sunday to tell her story. Other Republicans are coming forward to defend Christie.
His advisers believe Zimmer is a flawed accuser whose new charges do not square with her past statements of praise for Christie. They are making that argument in every conversation they have. They believe her credibility can be challenged. With Guadagno’s denial, investigators must sort out a she-said, she-said controversy.
They also believe Christie can continue his role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association as the investigations unfold. His weekend fundraising trip to Florida told them that there is no reason to think he cannot carry out those responsibilities effectively. He has trips scheduled for February. “Donors lining those events up remaining steadfast,” a Christie adviser said Monday.
The governor did not mention the investigations in his inaugural address, in contrast to his State of the State speech. He sought to turn back the clock to fall, reminding people that he had won an overwhelming victory — the largest in three decades, he said — that he said he took as affirmation to continue his bold leadership. “I will not let up,” he said. “I will insist we work together.”
But as the lines harden — and Democratic legislators press forward with their investigation and federal authorities look at how hurricane relief money was administered — Christie’s ability to fight a partisan battle over the inquiries and practice bipartisanship in governing will become more difficult. That’s not to say he will not emerge from this in a position to run an effective presidential campaign, but only to suggest that, even if he does get through this, he might not look like the Christie who was so celebrated such a short time ago.