By CHASE BRUSH
TRENTON – Last week, New Jersey’s prodigal son found himself at the center of yet another state controversy when The New York Times reported that investigators are now probing whether his administration and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey violated securities laws with a 2011 road repair project on the Pulaski Skyway. Surely, if Gov. Chris Christie still has plans for a presidential run in 2016, he’s not making it easy for himself.
But putting aside the bridge controversies — the first of which, as Esquire reported last week, could have prosecutors zeroing in on potential indictments — the governor still has one other issue to deal with, and it may be the most damning of all: what to do about the state’s current fiscal crisis, which has Democrats pitted against Republicans in both the Assembly and Senate in pursuit of a solution to a nearly $1 billion budget shortfall. Democrats have offered their own proposal that favors a tax hike for the state’s wealthiest residents, while Christie has vowed against such measures, opting to dip into the public pension system. “I am not going to raise taxes on the people of New Jersey to pay for a bloated, broken pension system and a Cadillac health plan system,” he said in an interview earlier this month.
It’s a battle that some believe could spell disaster for his political ambitions going in to 2016. Forced to concede a millionaire’s tax and renege on historic pension reform legislation that won him national recognition back in 2011, it will be that much more difficult for the Republican governor to stand in front of fellow conservatives and delegates in Washington and make the case that he, despite all evidence to the contrary, is the future champion of an increasingly fractured GOP. If Christie does come out of the budget scuffle not completely tainted, he’ll have his work cut out for him. Some, like Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, think the window for a Christie presidential race has already open and shut.
And yet, looking backwards through history, Christie’s not the only governor who’s cast an eye towards the White House while still dealing with fiscal crises at home. A number of gubernatorial leaders-turned-presidential aspirants — from leftists and hard-left liberals to neo-conservatives to moderate Republicans — have been through similar trials, finding themselves having to beat back the ghosts of near-government shutdowns and gaping budget holes in pursuit of a seat in the oval office. Some saw their political ambitions dashed to pieces on the shores of these ghosts; others were able to overcome them. And still others, like Massachusetts’ Michael Dukakis, were able to use them to their advantage (but ultimately, in Dukakis’ case, to no avail).
So PolitickerNJ spoke to Terry Golway, presidential historian at Kean University, and asked him: whose might a Christie campaign resemble, should he run for the Republican primary in 2016? As legislators convene today in Trenton to hash out the final details of the budget before the close of the fiscal year on Monday, Christie might take a tip from these gubernatorial predecessors.
Jerry Brown and his four-term governorship
As Christie heads toward conceivably his first Republican Presidential Primary, probably the last person he wants to be compared with is his old oddball West Coast nemesis, California Gov. Jerry Brown, who once challenged the New Jersey governor to a game of testosterone-one-upsmanship with a fitness test that Christie declined.
But the political comparison is apt.
Last week, the two-time governor of California signed his latest budget — $1.56 billion dollars for a state infamous for its fiscal mismanagement, but which, under Brown, has been on the mend. In 2011, when he took office for the fourth time, Brown inherited a $25 billion deficit, yet has since helped turned that number into a surplus. “State government in California is actually working,” he said.
Of course, it’s not the governor’s first rodeo. When Brown took office in 1975, he quickly gained a reputation as a fiscal conservative for his work with the Golden State’s finances. He received attention for passing a balanced-budget amendment to the state’s constitution and opposing Proposition 13, also know the People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxes, which greatly reduced state revenues. By his second term in 1978, his fiscal restraint had resulted in a budget surplus of almost $5 billion, one of the largest in California state history.
But when Brown eventually made a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination — he actually did it three times, once in 1976, 1980, and 1992 — his reputation came up short. His campaign plea — “The country is rich, but not so rich as we have been led to believe. The choice to do one thing may preclude another. In short, we are entering an era of limits,” he proclaimed in ‘78 — won him the admiration of his fiscal conservatives, but was ultimately not able to slow the momentum of Jimmy Carter, who went on the win the nomination and, later, the presidency.
So does Brown’s fiscal conservatism and eventual failed presidential bid translate in Christie’s case? “I guess you can make the argument,” Terry Golway, a presidential historian at Kean University told PolitickerNJ. “California was a basket case 20 years ago and now supposedly their bond ratings are up.
“Weirdly enough, this time around — I mean Jerry Brown is obviously not running for president — but were he 10 years younger and had he not been around for 50 years or whatever, it seems like he’s done a remarkable job now of sorting out the mess he inherited from Schwarzenegger,” Golway added, referring to the $25 billion dollar budget shortfall run up under the Terminator actor’s term. “It’s interesting that on the face of it he could actually bring something to the table but he’s just been around for too long and he’s too old,” he said.
Michael Dukakis and the “Massachusetts Miracle”
Michael Dukakis, governor of Massachusetts from 1975 to 1983 and 1983 to 1991, is another prime example of a gubernatorial veteran-turned-presidential front-runner credited with helping to bring about the economic vitality of his home state. During his two terms, Dukakis took credit for dragging Massachusetts out of a prior slump of de-industrialization and high unemployment by ushering in new, high-tech industry and financial services to the state, most notably around the Route 128 corridor outside of Boston.
Dukakis coined the term “Massachusetts Miracle” and campaigned on it during his run for president in 1988, where he ran against George Bush, Sr. Golway, who called the campaign “absolutely a technocratic, budget-balancing, fiscal stewardship argument,” believes that Massachusetts-as-economic-success-story was what made his Dukakis’ bid for the presidency unique. “Dukakis was the ultimate technocratic candidate of recent times. Foreign policy, no. Cultural issues, he didn’t have a whole lot to say. He was about the budget, he was about making this miracle happen in Massachusetts.”
Now, Chris Christie isn’t Michael Dukakis. It’s hard to picture the New Jersey tough guy looking completely out of sorts atop a tank in a Hail Mary campaign ad. The former is demonstrably more charismatic and politically-savvy than the latter, who earned the nickname “Zorba the Clerk” for his odd stoicism and social awkwardness during his ‘88 campaign. But Dukakis’ political career bears an unlikely resemblance to Christie’s, should he make a run in 2016, in that Christie too will likely rely on the state’s own economic success under his governorship — the “Jersey Comeback”, maybe — to convince voters that he’s got the fiscal wherewithal to run the country. Admittedly, it’d be a hard sell — after predicting in his budget that the Garden State would have the highest revenue growth rate in the nation and touting the “Jersey Comeback” at his Town Hall meetings all throughout 2012, the state woke up this year to a sobering reality: that that growth had never materialized.
Which is why Golway is less-than-optimistic. “The Jersey Comeback has been deflated already, whereas the Massachusetts Miracle, Dukakis critics would say, was a charade, but wasn’t really known in 1988,” he said. “Massachusetts was seemingly on the cutting edge of all this technology, reinventing itself, but I’m guessing that they didn’t have all these sorts of other issues [New Jersey is dealing with]. Whereas in Christie’s case, you can fly the flag of a comeback, but that flag is full of more holes than the flag that flew over Fort McHenry.
“So the argument has already been countered and the statistics seem to pose a problem for his narratives,” Golway said. “That wasn’t true in Dukakis’s case. People had a hard time countering the idea of the Massachusetts miracle. The best that Bush could do was say that ‘oh, the Boston harbor is polluted.’ Any candidate running against Chris Christie is going to be able to cite chapter and verse about whether it be the budget gaps that have developed under his tenure, the bond downgradings — not once not twice not three but five times. Those are pretty powerful counter arguments that Bush didn’t have when Dukakis ran.”
Nelson Rockefeller and New York’s Fiscal Crisis
Unlike Brown and Dukakis, who began their tenure amidst financial turmoil, New York State was at the peak of prosperity when Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller took office in 1974 — and it still was when he left it in 1978.
Politically, Rockefeller may be the most closely in line with Chris Christie’s leanings. According to Golway, much of Christie’s political career echoes the pragmatism Rockefeller exhibited in his own time. The pension reform legislation Christie co-authored in 2011, now at the heart of the state’s current budgetary woes, is one example of this — it was a largely bipartisan effort, headed by the governor and Senate President Steve Sweeney, a potential 2016 successor.
But by the time of New York’s fiscal crisis in 1975, Rockefeller had already ascended to the national level, leaving his successor, Hugh Carey, on cleanup duty. “I drank the champagne — you got the hangover,” Rockefeller once famously quipped. Similarly, Carey took office declaring that “the days of wine and roses are over.” Golway points this out, saying that despite similarities in their political orientations, Rockefeller dodged much of what Christie will have to confront head on in 2016 — a seemingly unsustainable public pension system and a billion dollar budget shortfall.
So what case can Christie make, should he find himself running in the Republican primary two years from now? “Christie is able to make a very powerful argument that he was able to make the pension and benefit reform to a state like New Jersey and with bipartisan support, and that’s an argument that’s going to resonate with republican voters and grassroots who are really concerned with those issues,” Golway said. “That’s where he really took a very difficult issue and made it happen by sheer force of his personality. That may be his strongest argument.”