D. Dowd Muska


The GOP Superstar Who Fell to Earth

February 04, 2016

No you can’t, I’m a god! I’m a god! You can’t kill me!

- Caligula (John Hurt), I, Claudius

Comparing Chris Christie to a deranged, megalomaniacal Roman emperor isn’t entirely fair. But Caligula’s fictional dying screech comes to mind when one ponders the New Jersey governor’s spectacular tumble from the pinnacle of Republican/right politics.

In American Governor: Chris Christie’s Bridge to Redemption (Threshold Editions; 452 pages; $28.00) WNYC reporter Matt Katz chronicles, in sometimes interminable detail, a man who was born to be a pol. Christopher James Christie entered the world as the first child of a middle-class, German-Irish-Italian family. The household was raucous -- mom and dad argued, a lot. Smart, well-behaved, and a natural leader, the kid looked to have a bright future.

In second grade, Christie told a classmate’s mother, “some day I’m going to be president.” (His uncle observed: “Chris wanted to be a politician when he was a baby.”) In junior high, he volunteered for the liberal GOPer Tom Kean, Sr. Rejected by Georgetown, he earned a political-science degree from the University of Delaware. A law degree from Seton Hall University completed his training for the world of professional politics.

Christie’s early runs for office yielded dismal results. He sought love from voters at the county and state level, failing in three of four attempts. Defamation suits were filed by, and against him. (He As Katz notes, “four elections in four years … triggered four court cases.”)

With not much hope of a career in elective office, it was time to become a real lawyer. Christie joined a small firm, Dughi & Hewit, “defending doctors in malpractice cases and handling investment and securities,” with his wife and brother, “both Wall Street traders,” referring clients. Staying active in Republican politics, he joined a junket of Jersey boys in a pilgrimage to visit Texas’s presidential-wannabe governor in January 1999. Christie raised big bucks for George W. Bush, and earned a nickname (“Big Boy”), the ultimate honor for Dubya insiders.

Christie’s reward came in the fall of 2001, when the White House named him U.S. Attorney for New Jersey. He had “never worked in criminal law or in a federal courtroom,” and had “never cross-examined a witness or worked as an assistant prosecutor.” No matter. The gig supplied ample media attention, through the prosecution of the Garden State’s rampant political corruption and indictments, however dubious, in the “War on Terror.”

In 2009, the economy was in freefall, and New Jersey’s chief executive was unpopular. In a deeply blue state, Christie gambled on the governorship, and grabbed 47 percent of the vote, besting incumbent John Corzine by six points. In short order, the tubby tough-talker garnered national attention. He exposed, and worked to correct, the state’s absurd overcompensation for government employees. He withdrew his state from the junk-science-fueled Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. And he berated reporters, nearly every chance he got.

The conservative entertainment complex swooned. (Even MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski were admirers.) Before he secured a second term, the Republican Party’s millionaires and billionaires began an unsuccessful campaign to get Christie to run for the presidency. Top-tier status in the fight for the GOP’s 2016 nomination was a certainty.

Then, everything fell apart. His post-Hurricane Sandy embrace of and praise for Barack Obama -- just before the 2012 election! -- enraged the GOP faithful. A year later, Bridgegate broke. The scandal involved a gubernatorial staffer and appointees punishing a Democratic mayor for not endorsing Christie’s reelection. The officials, who were eventually indicted by the feds, arranged several days of horrific traffic at the George Washington Bridge -- a dirty trick that put lives at risk. While no evidence has surfaced that the governor directed the skullduggery, Bridgegate revealed the narcissism and pettiness of an administration that put politics above all.

Undaunted, Christie announced his run for the presidency last summer. Republicans yawned. An Obama-lover? Tainted by scandal? A flip-flopper on Common Core, guns and abortion? The adulation the governor once enjoyed, back when Barack Obama ruled national politics and right-wingers needed a hero, was gone.

Today, Jerseyites despise their governor more than they ever scorned the guy he replaced. The economic comeback Christie promised has been a no-show. Jobs are scarce, ratings agencies regularly downgrade the state’s debt, and the pension system for government employees remains “the most underfunded of any in the United States.” He won’t be the next president, and term-limited, Christie will be out of a job in two years.

Political gods, it appears, can be killed.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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