photo by Gage Skidmore
When a politician fails dramatically, it is tempting (if cliche) to say he flew too close to the sun. Given the timing, it might be more accurate to say that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie flew straight into a firework.
The governor made national headlines on July 3 after a journalist captured aerial photos of Christie and his family enjoying the beach the day before. Not such an odd way to spend the Sunday of a holiday weekend, except for the fact that Christie had just ordered a government shutdown that meant no one else could visit the shore where the governor and his guests lounged at Island Beach State Park, or any other state-run beach facilities.
For anyone familiar with Christie, however, the incident is unsurprising. Christie thinks of Christie first, everyone else second. Public service is purely incidental. And public facilities – bridges or beaches – are there to serve the governor’s interest.
The shutdown followed a long-running dispute over the state budget. Christie had demanded that Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, the state’s largest health insurer, hand over $300 million to fund an opioid treatment program for the state. Or, more accurately, he demanded that legislators send him a bill that would restructure the company so that the state could dip into “excess” reserve funds for public projects. Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto balked, objecting at least partly on the grounds that Horizon policyholders would bear the cost in the form of larger premiums.
Despite Christie’s attempts to pin the government shutdown on Prieto, even going so far as to make posters with his picture that read “This Facility Is CLOSED Because of This Man,” Christie was the one who came across as tone-deaf and obnoxious. Before the beach photos became public, a reporter asked the governor if he got any sun on Sunday; Christie said no. Once the photo came out, Brian Murray, the governor’s spokesman, helpfully clarified that Christie had been wearing a hat.
Later, when asked about the photos of his family on the beach, Christie said that his beach house was separate from Island Beach State Park and that he was not asking for any state services at his residence. When a reporter asked whether it was fair he and his family had beach access on a holiday weekend when many others had to cancel their plans, Christie bluntly responded, “Run for governor, and you can have a residence there.” (Christie’s summer beach house is provided to the governor by the state.) In the past, he has admitted his preference to “squeeze all the juice out of the orange” when it comes to the perks of his office, no matter how politically damaging the image he creates while squeezing.
“I think my poll numbers show I don’t care about political optics,” Christie recently said. His approval rating is only 15 percent, the lowest approval rating for any governor in any state over the past 20 years, according to surveys from Quinnipiac University.
Christie and lawmakers reached a budget deal late Monday, so the beaches opened in time for Independence Day. But by then Christie had already become the subject of thousands of Twitter jokes, Photoshop projects and memes. It is unlikely many Americans could tell you the specifics of New Jersey’s budget showdown, but the image of Christie in a chair on an empty beach made it coast to coast.
Christie is toxic. It is hard to picture him ever winning a statewide election again, much less a national one. His presidential prospects are deader than Romney’s – and I mean George Romney, not Mitt. Just months after Bridgegate, I noted that he was politically damaged goods. His presidential run and its aftermath did nothing to help his image. Now Christie is not only damaged – he’s rotted.
Closing the beaches on a vital holiday weekend because he didn’t get money he wanted (from a private company, no less) for opioid treatment? Using one of the beaches he closed, because the state provides the governor with a beach house (clearly a vital state government facility)? Then dissembling about what he did? All appalling, and all classic Christie at the same time.
It is hard to argue that Christie will leave New Jersey is worse shape than he found it. Its tax structure is basically the same (way too high and too hostile to business), and its population trends are close to New York’s and even somewhat better than Pennsylvania and Connecticut’s. Of course, Christie has not left the state noticeably better either. But that’s about all you can expect for a place whose leader was blinded by the sun and by his own ambition, until he finally crashed to earth.