Hold the presses on the “Christie 2016” bumper stickers (though they’d be easy to read while sitting in a traffic jam). With the New Jersey Governor’s image taking a beating from still-developing public controversies, perhaps the case for Chris Christie as the leading Republican candidate in the next presidential election is not quite as clear-cut as before—unless he can find a way to rebuild his reputation.
Much of Christie’s success has been due to the political brand he has carefully cultivated: a straight if tough talker who’s a true conservative but can reach across the aisle to get things done. His landslide victory for a second term as Governor seemed to unequivocally demonstrate the broad appeal of this political brand and to prove that Christie represented the GOP’s best chance of winning the White House by appealing to independents and centrist Democrats.
Then the allegations of scandals within his administration hit, portraying a different kind of Christie–saying one thing while doing another; being self-serving, vindictive, even petty. It remains to be seen whether Christie knew more than he has admitted about the lane closures or doled out sandy relief money based on favoritism instead of need. But whatever ongoing investigations turn up, the brand Christie worked so hard to build has now been badly tarnished.
A closer examination of Christie’s record, however, suggests that this reputation may always have been predicated more on image than fact. Where was the straight-talking Christie who could tell his party that it was time to act after he acknowledged climate change as a serious problem? And where was the Christie who seemed able to reach across the aisle after he ran for Governor as a friend to the environment?
Christie’s actions on climate change and clean energy during his first term are revealing in this regard. Christie unilaterally withdrew New Jersey from a 10-state effort meant to reduce carbon pollution in the northeast region through interstate cooperation (the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative). He also diverted approximately $1 billion from funds dedicated to promoting clean energy initiatives in the state budget. These course reversals are even more perplexing in a “blue state” like New Jersey where government action to protect the environment is popular and the economic benefits from investing in clean energy are great.
If the most serious allegations against Christie turn out to be true, it’s hard to imagine how he would make a recovery. But even if nothing else turns up, Christie will still have to work to repair his damaged reputation. He can start by leading on issues people care about, such as climate change, as he should have all along.
An opportunity is in the making for the governor, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to soon issue a proposal for reducing carbon pollution from power plants that use fossil fuels. This proposal will make sense for New Jersey and the states still remaining in RGGI. And it wouldn’t be bad for Christie either, who could use a new bumper sticker with a positive message.