It was the best of times and then, just a few years later, it was the worst of times.
In early 2011, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seemed like as good a bet as any to take on President Barack Obama and win back the White House for Republicans in 2012. Pundits and donors asked, sometimes begged him to run. Now, a little more than four years on, they simply want him to leave — quietly.
But that was always an unlikely proposition. The bluster and disdain for political niceties that launched Christie’s political career are firmly in place, just fueling a reverse trajectory. When NJ Advance Media released bird’s eye images on Sunday of Christie and family lounging on an empty beach — one of many closed to the public during this holiday weekend as part of a state government shutdown — the blowback was swift, derisive and, perhaps worst of all for a governor with such an acid tongue, mocking.
Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in the coming November election, criticized her boss on Twitter and Facebook Monday morning.
“If I were governor,” she wrote (a recent poll suggests that’s a long shot, thanks in large part to Christie), “I sure wouldn’t be sitting on the beach if taxpayers didn’t have access to state beaches. It’s beyond words.”
That one of Christie’s final big headlines in the job would put him on the Jersey Shore is hardly a surprise — it’s actually poetic. His affection for the state’s beaches, the romance of the long shoreline, are central to his personal and political story.
As Hurricane Irene spun up the Atlantic coast in late August 2011, Christie whirled into action, demanding at a now famous press conference that intransigent sun-seekers, residents and vacationers “get the hell off the beach.”
In The Washington Post, conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin cheered his performance and puzzled at why he wasn’t loading up for a primary run: Christie’s “excuse,” she wrote, “that he’s not ‘ready’ for a job promotion is increasingly preposterous. Is there a single candidate in the Republican presidential race who is as impressive or who possesses better executive skills? Not that I’ve seen.”
But Christie stayed true to his word and, despite repeated suggestions he would jump in late, kept out of the 2012 Republican primary. If anything, though, the decision seemed tactical and practical. Incumbents are tough to beat. Obama’s overall popularity was down from its 2008 levels, but as Mitt Romney would learn, his base was more than durable.
Still, 2016 seemed wide open. And Christie’s brand felt to many like a winning one. He’d tamed, or at least fought to a draw, the feisty New Jersey (and New York) media. And when he barked at unhappy constituents — teachers were a frequent target — his supporters cheered. (Sound familiar?) Christie had won that nearly priceless designation: a politician dedicated to “telling it like it is.” In hindsight, his prospects might even have been better than people thought.
Christie was reelected in November 2013 with more than 60% of the vote. The path seemed clear — until it didn’t.
As he prepares to leave office now after two full terms, Christie is the most unpopular governor in the country. A Quinnipiac poll from June placed his approval rating at an astounding 15%. Another 81% said they disapproved of his job performance and 54% said their opinion of Guadagno — his longtime deputy — was negatively impacted by her proximity to Christie.
So where did it all go wrong? Like most fumbled capital, Christie’s popularity bled away slowly, then seemingly all at once. The core of it is, of course, the economy. As the country slowly rebounded from the financial crisis, New Jersey struggled to keep up, recovering jobs at less than half the national rate. Then there was the travel.
Christie was elected chairman of the Republican Governors Association for 2014, then entered the Republican primary the following year — meaning he spent more and more time outside the state.
Piled on top of the slow-burning “Bridgegate,” Christie buckled.
For all its many dramatic flourishes, the scandal took its toll over time. Christie was never charged, but prosecutors said top officials close to him plotted to jam up the New Jersey end of the George Washington Bridge, which connects the state to New York City, as retaliation against a local Democratic mayor who refused to endorse his 2013 re-election bid.
Earlier this year, Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority, was sentenced to two years in prison for his role, while Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff — and author of the infamous message, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” — got 18 months.
Christie’s last big stir came in early 2016, when, after dropping out of the GOP primary, he became one of the first establishment Republican figures to back Donald Trump — the same Trump who said during the campaign that the governor “totally knew about” the bridge closure shenanigans.
Mocked by Trump and eventually passed over for a big-ticket administration job, Christie had mostly receded as a national figure. Until today. His return to the spotlight, though, is about as unwelcome as it gets, an inglorious coda to a political career lost in the sun.