It’s been a while since we’ve had to talk about Chris Christie the presidential contender. After shouting and bullying his way into the hearts of vacant pundits who eagerly confuse bombast with leadership, the New Jersey governor found himself in the “top tier” of potential 2016 Republican candidates. Then, improbably, he saw his political rise halted by reports that his administration had closed traffic lanes on the George Washington Bridge as part of some absurd retribution scheme against one of New Jersey’s Democratic mayors. A federal investigation was initiated and Christie, who was once going to “save the GOP from itself,” found himself consumed by scandal.
But now, after months of patient waiting, it’s finally time for the political press to rally around Chris Christie’s BIG COMEBACK. NBC News’ New York affiliate reported last week that the federal inquiry into the bridge closure “has thus far uncovered no evidence indicating that [Christie] either knew in advance or directed the closure of traffic lanes on the span.” The investigation is still ongoing, and the reporters were careful to point out that “no final determination has been made,” but conservatives and Republicans were quick to declare Christie “exonerated” and set about the business of taunting liberals for obsessing over the story for so long.
The Washington Post kicked off the Christie Comeback in earnest with a piece last Friday reporting that “influential Republicans in early presidential primary states believe New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is poised to once again become a frontrunner for the party’s 2016 nomination.” Among the “influential Republicans” throwing in their two cents was clown-wigged publicity barnacle Donald Trump:
“It’s great news for Chris politically,” said real-estate mogul Donald Trump in a phone interview on Friday. “It goes a long way and pretty much clears up the problem he had, which was a very big problem. A lot of Republican donors are very happy today.”
Far be it from me to question Trump’s famed political acumen, but even if the federal inquiry does ultimately find that Christie had no direct knowledge or involvement in Bridgegate, the whole thing was still perpetrated by the people he picked as his inner circle. “It wasn’t me; it was the people I chose to help run the state” isn’t exactly the strongest exculpation.
So is Chris Christie really back in the game now that he’s been (unofficially) cleared of (direct) involvement in the Bridgegate scandal? Well, that depends largely on the willingness of the press to breeze past Christie’s economic record.
Two weeks ago, Standard & Poor’s Rating Services downgraded New Jersey’s bond rating for the second time this year. Overall, it was the eighth downgrade the state has seen from a ratings agency since Christie took office – the most for any New Jersey governor. The reasons for the downgrade were “structural imbalance and the governor's decision to reduce pension contributions in fiscal 2014 and 2015.”
The pension issue is huge in New Jersey – Christie refuses to raise taxes to help cover state payments into the system, thus helping ensure that the state pension fund will run out of money. The state is currently $37 billion behind on payments into the fund, and the Philadelphia Inquirer notes that Christie’s cuts “mean New Jersey will have to pay more into the pension system down the road, which the ratings agencies said would increase the financial pressures on the state.” The cuts Christie made to the pension system were intended to address the state’s $800 million budget shortfall, but that number has only grown bigger as the state’s overly optimistic revenue projections have come undone.
Census data released last week showed that even as the national economy picks up steam, New Jersey’s is lagging behind, with incomes dropping and the poverty rate ticking up. Pretty much everywhere you look, there are trouble spots. “The state's bond rating is among the worst in the nation,” the Wall Street Journal reported in July. “More than 8% of the state's home loans are in foreclosure, according to a May report by the Mortgage Bankers Association. Job growth has lagged behind neighboring states, even as Mr. Christie has pushed aggressive tax and business incentives.”
Governors with presidential ambitions make their case for higher office by pointing to their state’s economic record, and bad economic performance tends to be lethal to those ambitions. Look no further than Sam Brownback, the Republican governor of Kansas whose aggressively conservative economic agenda was supposed to springboard him into the 2016 race. Instead it tanked Kansas’ economy, and now he’s struggling to win reelection and running behind his Democratic challenger.
To argue that a favorable report on the still unofficial findings of the Bridgegate investigation mean that Christie is poised to surge to the top tier of Republican presidential candidates, you have to make the argument that Bridgegate is the only political sandbag weighing him down. That’s just not the case. Christie has a lot of economic baggage to account for, regardless of what Donald Trump says.