Chris Christie is political toast.
Cause of his charred presidential prospects: an unreformed state pension system. I know that’s disappointing. Not nearly as exciting as the political near-death experiences that went before. We were hoping the next disaster would be something like “Governor Yells at Elmo.” Or a reprise of the day he chased a guy down the boardwalk while waving an ice cream cone, this time maybe featuring Tom Hanks or Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Fixing New Jersey’s pension system was supposed to be Christie’s signature achievement. He explained it in his keynote speech at the Republican convention in 2012, right after he told us about his mom, his dad, his wife, his children and his love of Bruce Springsteen.
“They said it was impossible to touch the third rail of politics,” he bragged.
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By this point some of his listeners were wondering when he’d get to Mitt Romney. But Christie went on about how he had saved New Jersey workers’ pensions and staved off fiscal disaster. Thanks to shared sacrifice and “politicians who led instead of politicians who pandered.”
The politicians in question would be Chris Christie, who appeared to be referring to himself with the royal “we.” No matter. It was still a very big deal because there are crisis-ridden pension plans across the nation in need of rescue.
This is the kind of problem that can be fixed only if both sides agree to sacrifices they’d much rather avoid. That’s particularly problematic in American politics because pandering candidates often promise they can make the pain go away. (When he first ran for governor, Christie sent out an “Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ” denouncing rumors that he might “attempt to diminish or take away teachers’ pensions and benefits. Let me be clear – nothing could be further from the truth.”)
As soon as he was elected, Christie began negotiating on a law that would, um, diminish the benefits. It also required the state to raise its own pension contributions until the whole system was healthy. Bipartisan agreement!
“He was looked at nationally as a hero,” recalled Stephen Sweeney, the Democratic state Senate president, who had been working on the problem for years. “It was my pension plan he was touting, but anyway …”
POP QUIZ: After the Legislature passed the agreement, the workers started seeing smaller paychecks. What did Christie do to keep his side of the bargain?
A) Found the money to make the higher payments no matter what the political cost, because he’s that kind of guy.
B) Found the money for the first two years when the price tag was low, then punted.
C) Chased the state workers down the boardwalk while waving an ice cream cone.
Yes! He punted in Year 3. Which was, to be fair, after the Republican National Convention.
In order to ease the transition, the law allowed New Jersey to ease into its new big pension payments. Christie came up with the first relatively small bill. And then the second year’s. But, by Year 3, there just wasn’t enough money. The state Legislature passed a budget that paid for the pension contribution with tax increases, including one on incomes over $1 million.
Christie vetoed the taxes, and he reduced the new pension contribution to less than half of the target. Nobody’s going to give you the Republican presidential nomination if you raise taxes on rich people.
The unions went to court. This week, on the eve of Christie’s budget address, a judge told him to pay up.
“We don’t need a judge to tell us we have a problem,” the governor said, somewhat inaccurately.
This was during the budget address, which Christie devoted almost exclusively to pensions, in a tone that suggested he was the real victim. (“I have stood behind this podium for five years talking about this problem.”)
Well, it certainly is a mess, and the workers probably aren’t done sacrificing. But it’s hard to imagine this governor luring them to the table. “You can always go back to people when you’re living up to your obligations. But you can’t go back to people when you basically break your word,” said Sweeney.
For the rest of us, the news is that Christie is now about as serious a presidential prospect as Donald Trump. The Republicans certainly aren’t going to nominate him because of his in-depth experience in foreign affairs. And if they just want to pick a governor, they’ll probably lean toward one whose administration has enjoyed fewer than eight credit downgrades.
Sure, there’s Christie’s tough-talking, truth-teller thing. But the idea was that his in-your-face style pushed New Jersey to reform. If there’s no reform, you’d have to presume that the American people are just hungry for a president who will yell at members of the audience during the State of the Union address. Or wave an ice cream cone at Vladimir Putin.