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Will Chris Christie Pull a Schwarzenegger?
When Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected as the Governor of California back in 2003, a lot of Republicans were excited. They had every right to be. One of their candidates winning a state-wide election in the deep-blue state of California was something many in the party never believed they'd see again in their lifetime. Sure, they understood that it was Schwarzenegger's celebrity and not his platform of fiscally-conservative reform that won him the victory. Still, the fact that he boldly and successfully ran on such an agenda gave the GOP hope that they could use his momentum to make inroads in precincts previously thought to be a waste of their efforts. More importantly, Schwarzenegger brought something to the party that they've long been lacking: A cool factor.
It doesn't get any cooler than being an American icon after all, and that's exactly what Schwarzenegger was. In the eyes of millions, the man walked on water. The Governator was such an attractive concept that political activists almost immediately began seeking support to overturn the natural-born-citizen clause in the U.S. Constitution in hopes of someday getting him on a presidential ballot. The Republicans were so eager to glom onto his star power that they gave him a prominent, prime-time speaking role at the 2004 Republican National Convention. Schwarzenegger's political future seemed incredibly bright.
Surprisingly, the ride didn't last long.
Schwarzenegger called a special election in 2005 to present multiple ballot propositions to California voters, the passage of which would let him correct the vast budgetary problems that spawned his campaign in the first place. He met overwhelming resistance in the form of lobby groups and unions that spent hundreds of millions of dollars smearing both him and his agenda. Their campaign was so effective that by the time of the election, Schwarzenegger's previously high approval rating had been knocked all the way down to 37%, and every one of his propositions were soundly rejected by voters.
It was a humiliating defeat for Schwarzenegger - one that he did not take well at all. In appearances, he seemed as if his feelings had legitimately been hurt by the public turning against him. He had lost his acceptance with the masses, and it had to be an unfamiliar feeling to him. After all, he'd spent the past two decades as an incredibly popular star.
The 2005 election was a turning point for Schwarzenegger. It was the moment he seemingly decided that being liked was more important than saving his state from economic ruin. Instead of continuing to tell Californians what they needed to hear, he began telling them what they wanted to hear. To appease his predominately liberal electorate, he hired a chief of staff from the Democratic party, took a much softer stance on illegal immigration, began pursuing liberal causes like climate change, and pretty much abandoned all fiscal restraint. The icing on the cake was his vocal criticism of his fellow Republicans - the single respectable trait that the mainstream media can ever manage to identify when it comes to Republican politicians.
The transformation was so significant that former, left-wing critics (including San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom and actor Warren Beatty) joked that Arnold had turned into a Democrat.
From purely a popularity standpoint, Schwarzenegger got what he wanted. He once again became the toast of the town. His approval rating rose back up and he was elected to a second term in office. Unfortunately, the price-tag for acceptance came at the cost of leaving the state in far worse condition than how he'd found it.
I can't help but notice some similarities between Schwarzenegger and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, at least when it comes to their role in the Republican party.
Like Schwarzenegger, Christie defied the odds to get elected as a Republican in a very liberal state that was dealing with a budgetary crisis. Also like Arnold, Christie's larger than life persona and bold defense of fiscally conservative principles made him an instant rock star in the party. The GOP recognized his gifts and placed him up on a pedestal, even putting a tremendous amount of pressure on him to join the presidential primary race.
Christie was clearly flattered by the GOP's persistence, but declined to run for president. He instead became a fierce advocate for Mitt Romney's campaign. He was so effective in the role that many analysts viewed him as a likely frontrunner for the vice presidency. He even seemed receptive to the idea in interviews. It wasn't to be, however. Congressman Paul Ryan eventually received the nod, and according to The Politico, the decision may not have sat so well with Christie. Christie was reportedly Mitt Romney's first choice for the VP slot, with some inside the governor's camp believing that he had been led on quite strongly as the likely pick.
Reviewing Christie's demeanor following the Ryan selection compels one to wonder if the governor's feelings had been hurt, similarly to how Schwarzenegger's were, back in 2005. There was definitely a tamping down of his customary praise for Romney. At the Republican National Convention, Christie's delivery came across more like a stump speech in support of his own future political aspirations than it did support for Romney or even the party platform.
Weeks later, Christie's abundance of praise for President Obama, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, was perceived as a symbolic gesture that went beyond just a simple display of bipartisan solidarity. Christie seemed to enjoy sharing the spotlight with the president too, the association of which earned him rare accolades from the mainstream media and even his longtime musical idol (but political foe), Bruce Springsteen.
Some Republicans were not amused, citing Christie's needless bolstering of the president's image as one of the reasons Mitt Romney lost the election. While the display lost Christie some capital within the GOP, he gained some new found acceptance from the media. Whether it was due to those friendly images with the president, or his willingness to stick his thumb in the eye of his political party, coverage of him became more favorable, and not only from the press. Saturday Night Live invited him on for a guest appearance. Barbara Walters named him one of her Ten Most Fascinating People for her annual television special.
Christie earned media praise again this week when he went off an a colorful public tirade over House Speaker John Boehner's decision to dismantle a vote on a pork-filled, federal aid package for the Hurricane Sandy recovery. The condemnation was odd, especially from Christie who has made a name for himself as a champion of fiscal responsibility. For him to call into question the moral decency of a man for applying some brakes to a bill because it included billions of taxpayer dollars allocated to interests that had absolutely nothing to do with Sandy...Well, let's just say it was a bit unsettling.
I understand that any governor of a state obviously wants to appear to his constituency as if he's doing everything possible for them during a hard time, but there certainly seems to be a transformation going on with Christie. Just a year ago, he was the guy calling for a raise in the eligibility-age of our country's entitlement programs in order to deal with our country's debt problem. Just a few months ago, we was the guy calling for all Americans to share the sacrifice of a desperately needed reduction in our government's spending levels.
Now, he's the guy declaring that politicians who have the nerve to display some fiscal restraint when it comes to pork-riddled legislation are "selfish" and "disgusting"? That's the kind of thing that Democrats do. Such sanctimony will earn him applause from his new admirers in the media, but as a citizen of this country who recognizes our serious economic problems and thinks there's something special in Christie, it's pretty discouraging.
My hope is that Christie is only guilty of hypocrisy, but my fear is that he's headed in the direction of Arnold Schwarzenegger - a comparison I would have never even considered just a few months ago. Wanting to be liked is natural human trait, but it takes a strong, principled leader to do the right things, even when they're not politically popular. Christie has shown bold, principled leadership thus far in his term as governor - far more than Schwarzenegger ever did. If he can manage to keep that discipline, and fight back the urge to turn into a publicity-hungry, self-righteous politician, I think he can play a far more significant role in our nation 's history than the one he's established thus far.
This country needs people like the Chris Christie of a few months ago. It doesn't need another celebrity.