Christie’s game plan: Embrace the outrage

Chris Christie. (Via hobokencondos flickr stream.)
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To understand Governor Chris Christie's determination to kill a trans-Hudson rail-tunnel project that would have been a boon to the region, all you need to know is that the project was a pet cause of Jon Corzine and that some of the loudest cries of anguish about Christie's actions have come from Bob Menendez, Frank Lautenberg and Paul Krugman.

Sure, from a public-policy standpoint, the objections they’ve raised are legitimate: A new tunnel connecting New Jersey and New York is clearly needed, that need will only increase in the years ahead, and the deal New Jersey was offered by the federal government—$3 billion, on top of about $3 billion also committed by the Port Authority —is awfully good by the standards of massive public works projects. Plus, the last rail tunnel, completed in 1996, proved a boon to numerous interior New Jersey towns, where property values, and thus property tax revenues, soared.

But, in case you haven’t noticed by now, a logical argument rooted in rational thinking isn’t a particularly strong weapon in the battle for public opinion. Simple, easily comprehensible and emotionally resonant posturing is, and in this sense, Christie—not for the first time in his governorship and certainly not for the last—has picked the perfect political fight, one that puts him exactly where he wants to be both in New Jersey and nationally.

To the suburban voters who flocked to the polls last fall to deliver Christie his win over Corzine, the scorn of Menendez and Lautenberg is proof that their new governor hasn’t sold out, and that, unlike past Republicans who were elected on promises to bring dramatic change to Trenton, he actually means it. These are voters who have long felt that they contribute far more to government than they receive from it and who aren’t swayed by claims that spending $2.7 billion in taxpayer money now (at least) will somehow give them a payoff in the years to come. They’ve heard arguments like this over and over, but all they know is that their tax bills keep rising. It is not a coincidence that Christie’s biggest margin in the 2009 election came from Ocean County, whose residents wouldn’t use the tunnel even if it were constructed.

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These are voters who are used to being disappointed by both parties. Many of them voted for Christine Todd Whitman during the state’s last tax revolt, in the early '90s, only to watch her push (in concert with Democrats) a massive borrowing scheme to fund the public-employee pensions that now threaten the state’s long-term fiscal health. After Whitman, these voters spent a decade largely tuning out Republican candidates for statewide office, like Doug Forrester, Bret Schundler and Tom Kean Jr., only to turn back to the G.O.P. in '09. And even then, it wasn’t really Christie and the G.O.P. they were embracing; he was simply a vehicle for their immense frustration with Corzine. And that frustration was the product of two factors: One, widespread economic anxiety; and two, the Democrats’ post-2008 monopoly on Washington, which deprived New Jersey Democrats—for the first time since the Gingrich Revolution of 1994—of the ability to turn elections into referendums on the culturally conservative Republicans who had run D.C.

But Christie, unlike Whitman, has intently catered to this constituency since he's been in office, recognizing that they don’t see government as a useful tool and won’t be impressed by a photograph of their governor at a ribbon-cutting for a public-works project. They’re used to their leaders, from both parties, playing that game. They’re not used to watching their governor pull the plug on a multibillion dollar federal/state partnership because he doesn’t want cost overruns to burden taxpayers, just as they weren’t used to watching their governor openly (and joyfully) war with the state teachers’ union.

To these voters, the outcry from entrenched politicians like Menendez and Lautenberg serves only as confirmation of how different Christie is. In this way, Christie has achieved something unique in his first nine months on the job: The voters who put him into office like him more now than they did when they voted for him.

Nor is the national media used to watching a New Jersey governor—or, really, any governor of a major industrial state—behave this way. To leading liberal voices like Krugman, Christie's antics are appalling. But again, this is exactly what Christie wants. By attracting media attention and incurring the wrath of the left, he’s made himself something of a Republican folk hero.

The A.R.C. tunnel may be the biggest proposed public works project in the country, but if he’d simply played along and ponied up the money for it, no one would have noticed. Sure, he would have been able to don a hard hat and hold a shovel for a photo op or two (where Menendez, Lautenberg and Michael Bloomberg might have said nice words about his “leadership”), but those kinds of events are news at the dog-bites-man level—the kind of thing that every governor in every state does. Rejecting the money, killing the project, and provoking heated rebukes from the political establishment? That’s a stunt that gets noticed. And the dirty secret, as Christie’s detractors may be learning, is that it’s good politics.