Spanning the Delaware River is the Lower Trenton Bridge. Emblazoned on it is the phrase, “Trenton Makes the World Takes” and this bridge, which reaches from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, may have a message for aspiring New Jersey governors who look beyond the Garden State, if they can play their cards right. If “world” is swapped for “America” then there are precious few Oval Office precedents, aside from Woodrow Wilson over a century ago. But in terms of campaigning, it is possible that the Christie/Murphy era could have foreshadowed a Trump/Biden era, should November swing in the Democrats’ favor, and that could leave the original no-nonsense godfather governor wondering if the nation moved on without him.
In some respects it can be argued that Christie was the political Trump long before the latter made any attempt at running for office. Christie was the founding father of Republican tough guy assurance in a time of lukewarm Obama gentility. Christie was adept at cutting deals and getting results, and not letting anybody get in his way, establishing himself as a highly effective, if coarse, governor. Unlike Trump, Christie built up a powerful toolbox of insights, earned-skills, and demonstrated a keen sense of doing what had to be done, using those resources to take leadership in a highly Democratic state. “Deadlock” is not a term often used to describe the Christie years, but it had frustrated Phil Murphy—despite a Democratic majority legislature, especially prior to the arrival of the coronavirus. When Christie was overseeing Superstorm Sandy in 2012, he was enjoying record high polls, which is not unusual for a leader during a crisis provided that said leader can produce some tangible positive results in the aftermath. When Sandy’s floodwaters receded, Christie was a household name in America. Meeting with the president and giving him a warm New Jersey welcome, Christie received some backlash from his fellow Republicans, but demonstrated his strength by squashing those voices as absurd. He gained a measure of cooperative ability that Donald Trump could never claim in that moment, which is a sad assessment of the current political divide. Christie presented a responsible, authoritative picture on the national stage. Superstorm Sandy was, in many ways, Christie’s defining moment to seize. But it could not guarantee him any permanence.
Chris Christie sought the Republican nomination for the 2016 election but the effort was in vain. The rest is history but, today, if the embers still burn within him to seek out another run for the Oval Office, Christie may find himself in a strange state of political limbo regardless of how the November election turns out. The former captain of the Trentonian ship lashed himself to Donald Trump’s mast immediately after the latter cinched the nomination and subsequently won the election. Christie had a very realistic chance of being named as Vice President on the ticket, an opportunity that went to Indiana Governor Mike Pence, a man whose quiet, evangelical, tow-the-line compliance could not be any more different from Christie’s personality. Pence has been the ideal vice president for a chief executive who has always exalted in the spotlight and has never truly left the reality show mentality when it comes to governance. A Vice President Christie would have been talked about. Vice President Pence is, for better or worse, a non-entity in the consciousness of most Americans. Unlike Vice President Joe Biden who cultivated—and successfully disseminated the image of—a close partnership with President Obama, some even describing their chummy relationship as a “bromance,” Mike Pence has apparently been satisfied with standing two paces behind Trump and staying there, nodding and applauding from time to time. Nobody could realistically expect Christie to abandon his energy and expertise in such a way.
Initially assigned to Trump’s transition team, the tough-guy governor found himself out in the cold with Team Trump almost as fast as Christie had endorsed him. It might be only some small satisfaction to Christie that, despite his treatment by the president, he was hardly alone. Uniquely, however, Christie has maintained a relationship with the Trump administration, whereas most others who were dizzied, pushed through the Oval Office’s revolving door, have cut ties.
But back home: Trenton Makes and America Takes. Almost exactly a year after Sandy, the Bridgegate affair rocked the Christie administration. In 2020 terms, the matter was an alleged Trump-style case of a political hit job, where the Democratic Mayor of Fort Lee was essentially being punished for not supporting the governor’s re-election bid, and the consequences were dire. Bridget Ann Kelly, the governor’s Deputy Chief of Staff, and Bill Baroni, the Deputy Executive Director at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, were to take the fall. Christie’s popularity began its decline as rapidly as it had risen, a rollercoaster ride that would make Action Park think twice about installing it. Criticized as being an absent governor while campaigning for president, he could never gain traction in the national polls. The bombastic billionaire from neighboring New York had sucked all the oxygen from the Republican room, amplifying any appealing Christie-style braggadocio by an order of magnitude the governor could never replicate. Trump had made Christie a Fortunato, restrained in the alcove, as Trump vis a vis Montressor slowly started to wall the veteran politician in.
When Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno had stepped up to the Republican plate to face off against former ambassador and Goldman Sachs executive Phil Murphy, a hardline liberal millionaire representing a potentially serious shift to the left in Jersey politics, Christie kept his involvement minimal. Just as John McCain did not actively court Bush’s endorsement in his 2008 run against Barack Obama, the less “Christie” associated with the Guadagno brand, the better. But the damage was done. While Guadagno had plenty of solid credentials and experience in her own right, she could not escape the albatross around her neck left there by her former boss, and the electoral result was telling. Christie had become a liability at home and had been smothered on the national level. While not absent from the public eye, Christie kept a low profile, by and large, except releasing a book in 2019 called “Let Me Finish: Trump, the Kushners, Bannon, New Jersey, and the Power of In-Your-Face Politics.”
The next great boon came seven years after Bridgegate, when the Supreme Court threw out the case. Christie gloried in his exoneration, labeling the process a “political crusade.” In a statement, Christie lashed out against “…the damage that was visited upon all of the people dragged through the mud who had nothing to do with this incident by the prosecutorial misconduct and personal vindictiveness of Paul Fishman.”
The question for Christie is the question of Trump. Might Trenton have “made” a reflection of the 2020 election? Only time will tell, but Christie could well be trapped by the “bigly” nature and character of Donald Trump. Suffice it to say, the president is not expected to do well in New Jersey. As the former governor peaked and fell, then failed to grab national attention in 2016, he has again hitched himself to a president whose style is similar, but far less intellectual nor grounded in experience when it comes to dealing with the political process. While Christie has been accused of being a bully by political opponents, few have ever questioned Christie’s cognition or his actual skill sets. That, however, might not be enough, since neither coherence nor consistency are the currency of success in Trump’s campaign style. According to the New York Post, Trump has been practicing debating with Christie, but Christie knows that it is the man in the ring, not the trainer at the ropes, who ultimately wins or loses and subsequently affects his trainer’s credibility.
Christie might want to take the elements of Trump’s populist and off-the-cuff say-it-like-it-is style, but could he ever translate that into political traction at this point? He was unable to four years ago and the country has had a strong dose of Trump since. Few people are undecided as to their opinions of the president. It’s either all or nothing, and that kind of brinkmanship must be worrying for the Christies, Van Drews, or even Grossmans looking to chart those icy waters. The implications are profound, and the precedents will have been set by the billionaire real estate mogul.
Would America be willing to accept a junior-styled version of Trump from a state largely perceived as the kid brother to New York? Could Trump have inadvertently reversed the 2017 roles for Christie by assuming the former governor’s role and casting Christie as Guadagno in 2024?
The “greatest city in the world” is in sight of New Jersey, but it is still across the river. People in Paramus wear blue baseball caps with NY embroidered on them. Even in the midst of the pandemic, pundits have cast Murphy as the second-man to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in the new regional alliance of governors handling the crisis. Is Christie trapped by that same perception?
In the event that Christie still has presidential aspirations of his own, he needs to reconcile with some monumental public relations obstacles and may most likely be thwarted by Trump himself, regardless of the outcome in 2016. While other candidates have attempted a Trump-style approach to campaigning, they did not achieve Trump-style success in the Garden State which handily voted for Hillary Clinton.
What once worked for Christie worked once, and just for Christie. What worked for Trump in America did not work for Trump in New Jersey. As far as New Jersey is concerned, this does not seem likely to change headed into November. Movie-goers usually say that the sequels do not compare to the original, which is an unfair but nevertheless applicable analogy to political office-seekers. Should Trump cinch the deal in November, it will be a vindication of the brash-and-crash strongman message that Trump—and only Trump—can deliver. That kind of shadow will be a long one and Christie may find himself swallowed up in the dark trying to find his own unique path if 2024 is a prospect he wishes to pursue. (That, of course, assumes that President Trump does not seek to install himself for an unconstitutional third term, as he has suggested on more than one occasion.)
On the other hand, if Trump is defeated in November and actually concedes the race, it will demonstrate a rejection of the means Christie sought to achieve the highest office in the land. Beaten in 2016, Christie’s endorsement of Trump and his subsequent closeness with the administration—regardless of his scathing book—a Trump defeat in 2020 would have essentially the same effect. The former governor may have fatally tied his future elected-office prospects by sacrificing his autonomy. A Biden Administration will have no place for the man succeeded by Phil Murphy and Washington DC could largely reflect the transition in Trenton in 2017. If so, it is very likely that What Trenton Makes the World Takes.