By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — Chris Christie’s presidential prospects are sagging — and it has nothing to do with those steel cables spanning the Hudson River.
The sprawling controversy, which began with bridge lane closures in Fort Lee, N.J., to punish a political foe, has given the governor a reputation for running New Jersey in a vindictive and even thuggish manner. But this would hurt him less in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries than the loss of the central rationale for his potential candidacy: that he returned New Jersey to fiscal health.
CBS News’ Bob Schieffer, assigned to interview Christie onstage Wednesday at the Peter G. Peterson Foundation’s annual “fiscal summit” in Washington, laid out the bad news: $807 million budget shortfall; downgrades by credit-rating agencies; worry that the state can’t pay its pension obligations; and slow job growth.
“Not so long ago, people were talking about the New Jersey miracle,” the genial newsman said. “Now suddenly the news is not so good about New Jersey.”
Christie did what any strong leader would do when presented with such facts: He blamed the economists. “They overestimated our revenue,” he said. “When I asked them, ‘How could you be so wrong?’” he added, “they said, ‘We just missed it.’ You know, the great thing about economists is that’s all they have to say: ‘Governor, I’m sorry, we missed it.’ Yeah, I’m sure you are, but I’m the one who has to fix your miss.”
It was eerily similar to Christie’s response to the bridge controversy: He was blameless. His staff let him down.
And what about the $1.6 billion pension-plan payment the state may not be able to make? Christie couldn’t blame the economists — so he blamed his predecessors. “A billion of it is for the unaccrued liability that my predecessors didn’t pay for increased benefits,” he explained. “Christie Whitman, Jim McGreevey, Dick Codey, Jon Corzine made no pension payments. None. Zero.”
This was not helping Christie’s image as a straight shooter. “Bob keeps asking me these questions as if I’m actually going to answer them,” the governor said when Schieffer had the nerve to inquire about how Christie would pay the pension liability. “You’re ruining my reputation.”
It was bad luck that Christie’s fiscal crisis had climaxed just as he gave a highly billed address to the fiscal summit. But for the governor, the bad luck keeps coming. The speaker immediately preceding Christie was Bill Clinton, who was folksy and funny as he rebutted questions raised about his wife’s health by Karl Rove.
PBS’ Gwen Ifill, Clinton’s interviewer, asked about the suggestion by “Dr. Rove” that Hillary Rodham Clinton had suffered a brain injury.
“Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” the former president joked. “First they said she faked her concussion, and now they say she’s auditioning for a part on ‘The Walking Dead.’”
Clinton had a few more lines prepared: “Now they say she’s really got brain damage. If she does, I must be in really tough shape because she’s still quicker than I am.”
Six months ago, Christie and Hillary Clinton were in strong positions to be their respective parties’ 2016 standard bearers. But the divergence in fortunes since then could be seen in the postures and presentations of the governor and the former president Wednesday.
Clinton, legs crossed, chin on fist, seemed to be enjoying himself as he defended his wife’s handling of the Benghazi attacks as secretary of state. “Hillary did what she should have done,” the former commander in chief said, floating a possible counterattack: “Most Americans don’t even know how many American diplomatic personnel were killed when President Bush was president.”
Christie, by contrast, sat gripping the armrests, his feet planted on the floor, frequently straightening his tie. When Schieffer asked about “Bridgegate,” Christie suddenly became interested in his coffee mug, holding it upside down to show that it was empty. “It’s a prop, obviously,” Christie said.
What impact would the bridge flap have on his political future? “I think it will have none because I didn’t do anything,” Christie said, blaming the “circus” of Washington. “A couple of staff people do something that they shouldn’t have done, I fire them, and all of a sudden this becomes the biggest story in the country for a couple of months,” he said, “because I guess you guys weren’t doing anything else down here.”
Christie dismissed the bridge as “a footnote,” and he returned to the topic of New Jersey’s finances. “My future is going to be based upon the record” of his fiscal management, he said.
That’s the problem.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.