On the long road to ’16, Chris Christie would be well advised to remember the ’92 Clinton adage, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Because it’s the Jersey economy – not the bridge scandal – that’s likely to dog his nascent steps toward the GOP nomination.
Christie fans exulted last Thursday when an NBC affiliate station in New York reported that federal investigators thus far have failed to find gubernatorial fingerprints on the George Washington Bridge brouhaha. (Great line from Bill Maher: “No one can prove Chris Christie ordered the hit, which is New Jersey for ‘innocent.'”) Nevertheless the U.S. attorney’s probe is “very much ongoing,” and Christie could still wind up tainted if key aides get indicted or flip to the feds.
But forget the bridge for the moment, because Christie actually has a much bigger problem – namely, his stewardship of a sour state economy and a bad budget ledger. Christie lacks what governors who run for president covet most dearly: economic success back home – in this case, a “Jersey Miracle” or a “Jersey Comeback,” some kind of sunny narrative that would tout his purported executive creds.
The conservative voters who dominate the early GOP primaries might not be charmed by a governor who can’t balance the books, sustain his state’s credit rating, or grow his economy. This is the meat-and-potatoes stuff. As Republican strategist Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to George W. Bush, said recently about Christie, “I think a mixed economic performance could be heavier baggage than the bridge.”
Indeed, Christie’s prospective ’16 rivals already have the requisite factual ammo for an attack ad that virtually writes itself. Here’s the ad copy (cue ominous music):
Under Chris Christie, New Jersey’s credit rating has been downgraded eight times – more than under any governor in the state’s history.
True that. Credit downgrade #7 came 17 days ago, in an announcement by Fitch Ratings. Credit downgrade #8 came 12 days ago, in an announcement by Standard & Poor’s. For Jersey governors, eight downgrades is indeed an all-time record. Put simply, this means that lenders have much less confidence in New Jersey than they did before Christie took the reins. This means that lenders are more likely than ever to impose higher interest rates when they lend Jersey money to finance stuff like schools and roads.
Why is this happening? S&P explained its decision: “New Jersey continues to struggle with structural imbalance…New Jersey will face increased long-term pressures in managing its long-term liabilities, and that the revenue and expenditure misalignment will grow based on reduced funding of the state’s unfunded actuarial accrued liability.”
Let’s translate that into layman’s English: Christie’s books are a mess, he has made upbeat revenue predictions that didn’t come true (in April, he got hit with an $807-million budget deficit he didn’t foresee), he made promises that he has since failed to keep (signing a 2010 law that requires him to make steady payments into the state employe pension system; and subsequently reneging on those payments), and there’s no sign that things will get any better.
And let’s cite some other figures that could easily be grist for attacks ads in Iowa and New Hampshire: Since February ’10, Christie’s first full month in office, private-sector job creation in New Jersey has increased by only 3.8 percent – tied for second worst in the nation with Mississippi. Generally speaking, no state likes to be ranked in the same breath with Mississippi.
The Jersey job growth rate is far more anemic than in Indiana (Mike Pence), Louisiana (Bobby Jindal), Texas (Rick Perry), Wisconsin (Scott Walker), and Ohio (John Kasich). Those guys are all governors, some or all of whom may be Christie’s competitors in ’16. And oh, one other thing: Those five governors’ states have lower unemployment rates than Jersey’s. On Christie’s turf, It was 6.6 percent in August – half a percent higher than the national average.
Naturally, Christie is blaming others for this and that. He faults the Democratic legislature for failing to be cooperative, and he says that the credit rating agencies are being “significantly overaggressive.” Whatever. The point is, his Jersey stats are what they are – a significant political hindrance.
Conservatives already question his ideological bona fides (one right-wing ad has faulted his judicial appointees as too liberal); that’s one reason why his GOP primary poll numbers are so tepid in New Hampshire. In the latest survey, he’s sitting at nine percent support, tied for fourth with the unelectable Mike Huckabee. To sway conservative skeptics, and convince independents that he has executive prowess, he badly needs an economic success story.
As GOP strategist Keith Appell remarked not long ago, “The economy is always the biggest issue…because the first question people ask is, ‘What can you do for me? And this goes directly to their wallet or purse.” Which is a lot more important than whether they’ve ever crossed the George Washington Bridge.
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