Governor Chris Christie, like Icarus, continues his long plunge out of the sky. There’s a fat joke to be made there, but I’m classy enough to resist it.
Christie’s solar ascent is a remarkable story: elected in 2009 at the beginning of the tea party surge, his victory initially played second fiddle to that of Virginia’s Bob McDonnell. McDonnell was predicted to be a reformer; Christie another northeastern moderate, the sort who spend four years lightly pumping the brakes on Democratic supermajorities. Instead, McDonnell fell first, into obscurity and then into a courtroom, while Christie badgered and blustered his way into Garden State hearts. Here was a fearless conservative who could weather the maudlin political theater of the teachers’ unions and thrash them. The outcast GOP had found a champion in the unlikeliest of places.
Christie was reelected in 2012 by a 22-point margin, and it’s been a nonstop ticker of bad news ever since. First he ticked off conservatives by embracing President Obama after Hurricane Sandy, then he ticked off New Jerseyans when his staff shut down lanes on the George Washington Bridge allegedly as political retribution against a Democratic mayor, then he ticked off the rest of humanity when he became a slobbering Trump campaign supplicant sans veep guarantee. And just to ensure the coffin was sealed, prosecutors announced earlier this week that Christie had, in fact, known about the lane closures in Fort Lee, because his aides had boasted about the conspiracy to him with Jersey brio. The man who as U.S. attorney doggedly prosecuted local corruption — one of his biggest triumphs was helping bust a ring of politicians and rabbis who had illegally profited from the sales of human kidneys: welcome to Jersey, baby! — looks increasingly like a tawdry political kingpin.
Those of us who grew up conservative in the Northeast blame its sluggish economies and larded-up public sectors on Democratic governance, which has gone on, often untrammeled, for decades. Christie was supposed to change course, and a further heave on the boat’s wheel was to come from Paul LePage, the brusque tea partying reformer from Maine. Elected in 2010, LePage quickly set about both advancing a fiscally conservative agenda and accruing a gaffe list rockier than his state’s coastline. He was nevertheless reelected in 2014, with Christie’s help, and then, this past summer, he unleashed a torrent of racially provocative rhetoric that culminated with him roaring, “Black people come up the highway and they kill Mainers! You ought to look into that!” Mainers did look into that and LePage’s approval rating is currently at 39 percent. LePage himself has suggested that he might resign.
And so it goes. If conservatives had an in-house poet, he’d write a lament about the Northeastern Republican reformer, brought low by scandal and gaffe. In the interest of fairness, though, we should note another factor in the plights of Christie and LePage: their inability to ventilate the fumes of Democratic governance quickly enough for their economies to open up. GDP growth in Maine and New Jersey has lately ranked among the lowest in the country, and both states still have hefty tax burdens. Jersey, meanwhile, has the worst business tax climate in the United States.
It’s not all a shambles: Maine is better off than New Jersey overall, and its unemployment rate often beats the national average. But generally, Christie and LePage haven’t been able to affect the sweeping change that their states require. For example, Christie placed a cap on his state’s exorbitant property tax hikes in 2011 — hooray, but what’s really needed for growth is property tax relief, a non-starter with both houses of the New Jersey legislature ruled by Democrats. This is the hurdle of the Republican Northeastern reformer: if he can’t implement anti-Democratic policies, the economy will continue to stagnate and he’ll be thrown out in favor of another Democrat. Voters expect the GOP to only curtail Democratic impulses, when what’s needed is outright overhaul.
Is there hope? Larry Hogan of Maryland is a tenacious reformer and Charlie Baker is Massachusetts’ first Republican governor since Mitt Romney high-tailed it to Iowa — the two are tied for the nation’s second-most popular chief executive. Connecticut’s hilariously unpopular Democratic governor Dannel Malloy could also yield a Republican in 2018, if that state’s GOP can finally get its act together. Could a more successful second act be in the works? I’ll ask again: is there’s hope for the liberal Northeast? No. The entire region is doomed to economic immiseration and possibly meteoric extinction. But for native sons like me, it’s fun to pretend.