In the middle of a snowstorm, likely looking out at empty seats, the second term of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie begins with his inauguration on Tuesday afternoon. His message will largely be untempered — we must work together for all New Jerseyans — but it's impossible not to put it in the broader context of Christie's terrible past two weeks.
"One of the lessons that I have learned most acutely over the last four years is that New Jersey can really be one state," Christie is expected to say during his noon-time speech, according to excerpts released to the press. (You can watch it at right.) "We have to be willing to play outside the red and blue boxes the media and pundits put us in; we have to be willing to reach out to others who look or speak differently than us; we have to be willing to personally reach out a helping hand to a neighbor suffering from drug addiction, depression, or the dignity-stripping loss of a job."
Quick translations. The red and blue boxes? He's your guy to win in the November 2016 general election. The "speak differently" line? He's your guy to appeal to Latino voters. The helping hand? Less government aid, more neighbors helping each other.
Solid, center-right verbiage. But it is extremely hard not to subconsciously tack on another condition from which our neighbors might be suffering: being stuck in traffic. The Washington Post says of the speech that "[g]one is the brash talk that Christie has often employed during press conferences and interviews. What’s left is a subdued and filed-down text that celebrates 'listening' and 'compromise.'" Before the revelation earlier this month that a Christie staffer authorized the closure of on-ramps to the George Washington Bridge, backing up traffic into the town of Fort Lee, the governor would have had a tricky time making the case to the rest of the nation that he's a bring-'em-together sort of guy. Now, it's much trickier.
Even his response to Hurricane Sandy, previously unassailable, has become a minefield, with the mayor of Hoboken, Dawn Zimmer, accusing him of holding Sandy relief funds for ransom, and with questions being raised about his appearances in post-Sandy ads. "New Jersey came together as one community when it mattered most," he'll say today, "and now we must stay together." Expect Zimmer to appear on the news offering a rebuttal to that argument.
Christie's weakened political position has made this day, which last November seemed like it would be a coronation that took place along the king's march to the White House, into a politically difficult moment. On Saturday, The New York Times reported that Todd Christie, the governor's brother, was pressing donors for contributions to the inaugural events as recently as last week. On Monday, The Wall Street Journal indicated that there is "less enthusiasm" for tickets to the speech and evening gala on Ellis Island. A planned dinner was cancelled. The Journal quotes a Republican leader in the state: "They are having a hard time filling the spaces. The level of excitement is not there this time around."
And then there's the weather. Snow is already falling in the region, with 8 to 12 inches of snow expected. The Post's Robert Costa quoted a Jersey Republican who called the storm the "perfect excuse" to cancel the evening's inaugural ball. Update: And it's been cancelled.
Christie — in very Christie fashion — will push his way through the day, hoping that the text of his speech serves as the statement of principle he clearly hopes it will, and that all of the day's other problems, legal and not, eventually fade. The very last thing to happen in New Jersey politics before that noon swearing-in, though, is likely to be the announcement of what NBC's Michael Isikoff calls a "Bridgegate super panel" — the combined legislative investigation into what happened in Fort Lee. When it snows, it pours.