Chris Christie’s big week goes bust

Bad news and bad weather ruined his inauguration after his RGA debut fizzled, but he brazened his way through

Published January 21, 2014 6:24PM (EST)

Chris Christie stands on stage before being sworn in for his second term as governor in Trenton, New Jersey, January 21, 2014.                           (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
Chris Christie stands on stage before being sworn in for his second term as governor in Trenton, New Jersey, January 21, 2014. (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

This was supposed to be a huge week for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. First an inaugural trip to Florida as head of the Republican Governors Association, then his second swearing-in as New Jersey’s governor after a landslide November victory. Together the two events were supposed to unofficially launch Christie toward Washington, D.C.; instead he’s fighting to stay on top in Trenton, as Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s charge that his administration withheld Sandy funds because she blocked a local development heightened national attention on his administration’s record of retribution.

Against that backdrop, Christie’s 18-minute inaugural address seemed delusional, or brazen. He didn’t mention the scandals that have threatened his political future; in the face of charges of rank political payback, he hailed “a New Jersey that has put aside political partisanship … a New Jersey that brought pride to our people and leadership to our nation.” It was as though the address was written a month ago, when his national prospects were still bright -- and who knows, maybe it was.

Still, in the warmup to his speech, and throughout most of it, Christie looked shaken by his month of scandal. His Florida trip had to rattle him: Instead of parading around the early primary state as a lordly Republican king (or queen) maker, ready to lead his party to a big 2014 statehouse sweep, he was whisked to closed-door, no-press meetings in dark-windowed SUVs, like a crime suspect headed to meet with his lawyers. No photo ops with Gov. Rick Scott, no witty press conferences, no mingling with adoring Republicans; just a message to big donors to get back to him next year.

Back home, Christie had to cancel a 50-person Inaugural Eve dinner “because of lack of response,” the Wall Street Journal reported (and that was before Zimmer made her charges). Demand for inauguration tickets is roughly half what it was in 2010. Christie’s office insists that’s routine for a second swearing-in, but I don’t buy that: If folks thought they were helping launch not only Christie’s second term but his presidential campaign, this would have been a much bigger deal.

Even so, Christie tried to brazen his way through his inaugural address as though none of that was going on. He made a tone-deaf commitment to “a government that truly works for those who pay for it” – and took a shot at efforts to reduce income inequality. His patron Home Depot founder Ken Langone surely liked it: Langone recently whined that Pope Francis’ advocacy of the poor demonizes the rich; Christie took it upon himself to comfort the needy rich, warning that a government push to reduce income inequality “penalizes success” – a message that went over real well when Mitt Romney used it in 2012.

"I do not believe that New Jerseyans want a bigger, more expensive government that penalizes success and then gives the pittance left to a few in the name of income equity," Christie told the crowd. "What New Jerseyans want is an unfettered opportunity to succeed in the way they define success."

It’s remarkable: a governor accused of withholding Sandy aid to needy Hoboken in order to grease the wheels for a Rockefeller Group luxury development (represented by his buddy and Port Authority crony David Samson) pledged to make government “truly work for those who pay for it” and avoid “penalizing success.” He did rail against “entrenched interests and their endless stream of money” – but it turned out he was talking about teachers’ unions.

Christie got through his big speech, with its praise of bipartisanship and unity that were supposed to resonate from Iowa to Florida in 2016. But just before he began came a Quinnipiac poll showing that his presidential hopes are continuing to fade. In December, he led Hillary Clinton 42-41; now he trails her 46-38, and he’s seen the biggest drop in support among independents. Last month they went 47-32 for Christie; now they narrowly favor Clinton, 41-40. This follows an NBC/Marist poll that likewise saw a big jump for Clinton in a matchup with the damaged governor.

Of course, it must be said that Clinton hasn’t declared her candidacy and could conceivably decline to run; Christie has time to revive his fortunes. But he reportedly told donors this weekend that he has no idea when the investigation into his various troubles will end. During Christie’s inaugural ceremonies the New Jersey Legislature decided to merge its Assembly and Senate probes into one “super-committee.” Once Christie's political career seemed to be supersized; now it's his political troubles.

By Joan Walsh