Will Christie’s 2016 Presidential Run Offer a Defense of Government?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 6 2013 12:20 PM

Trenton Strong

GOP presidential hopeful Chris Christie isn’t afraid to make the case for government in the age of Tea Party politics.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie after winning re-election Tuesday night.

Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images

Trenton makes, Washington takes. That's the newly re-elected New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's twist on the famous message on the bridge that spans the Delaware River on the way into the Garden State. "I know that if we can do this in Trenton, New Jersey, maybe the folks in Washington, D.C. should tune in their TVs right now to see how it's done," he said in his victory speech after winning a second term on Tuesday.

In the era of the Tea Party—when victors talk about stripping away government with a liberal use of the words liberty and freedom—the future presidential candidate's speech was remarkable for its support of government as a useful enterprise. He had every reason to—Christie's landslide victory was built on his sustained reaction to Hurricane Sandy that hit a year ago, taking 37 lives and costing $30 billion worth of damage as it erased huge swaths of the storied Jersey Shore. But Christie wasn't just talking about effective government in the wake of disaster. He was making the case for something bigger—for the reanimation of government as a force for making effective change in people’s lives.

Christie reflected on the mood of the electorate when he came to office in 2009. "The people of New Jersey four years ago were downhearted and dispirited, they didn't believe that government could work for them anymore." Let's stop here. In your standard Tea Party address, the emphasis is less on making government work but paring it down to limit its debilitating effects. What fills the heart and lifts the spirit comes from freedom; it can never be found in an institution of government. Christie, on the other hand, portrayed effective government as having something to offer. "In fact, what they thought was that government was just there to take from them but not to give to them, not to work with them, not to work for them. Well, four years later, we stand here tonight showing that it is possible to put doing your job first."

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Doing your job. Getting the job done. That was the constant refrain from Christie in his election night victory speech. He didn't talk about a single policy proposal or thing that he had done, which was probably smart. It doesn't confuse or complicate his main message, and it also allows him to claim his re-election is a validation of his entire record without unearthing any opposition that might arise from the dislike of a particular program. Who can argue with wanting to get things done? 

For a nation weary of Washington's inability to complete even the most basic tasks assigned to it by the Constitution and custom, promises that you can get the job done are alluring. (Most would probably settle for a promise to not screw things up.) Mitt Romney largely ran away from his record as a governor; Chris Christie is using his time in Trenton as a walking stick. But how far will it take him? Will he build his campaign on a vision of what effective government would look like at the federal level—courting possible Tea Party assaults for doing so—or will he talk about it as just one of his past successes? How important will Christie’s argument for the power of government be for this Republican presidential hopeful? Will it be a walking stick or a crutch?

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.