It's difficult to get voters to pay attention to dry topics like pension reform, so New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's team briefly tried a new tactic this week: a mock movie trailer filled with fire, explosions and a cameo by "The Rock."
With Christie renewing his push to get a handle on New Jersey's budget difficulties, which are due in part to the state's underfunded health and retirement obligations for state employees, the trailer, titled "No Pain, No Gain," was posted on Christie's YouTube account Tuesday and then removed within hours without explanation.
Against a backdrop of ominous clouds and pounding music, the trailer featured Christie telling voters that "the looming crisis is clear. We can no longer stand around and say it's not a problem.... We need to fix this system or it will eat us alive."
The mock ad (which had about 2,860 hits by Tuesday afternoon before it disappeared from the GovChristie YouTube feed) promised a rough ride ahead as the parties re-engaged in the debate. "When you thought it was over," the narrator said of the pension crisis, "it's back."
The trailer promised "tough choices," "new resolve" and "real reform." "Hang on to your seats," the narrator said amid a montage of racing images that included a launching rocket, a roller coaster careening down the tracks and "The Rock" (a.k.a. actor Dwayne Johnson) striding away from a burning structure. It ended with the words: "No Pain. No Gain."
The latest confrontation between Christie and Democrats on the pension issue in New Jersey comes two months after the governor announced he was reducing contributions made to the state's public workers' pension funds by $2.4 billion to deal with the budget woes. The announcement prompted swift criticism by the Democratic Legislature.
For Christie, the move was a step backward from 2011, when he crafted a pension law with Democrats that committed the state to shoring up its beleaguered retirement system.
But Christie argued in May that he could not "pay for all the sins of my predecessors," and pointed out that by 2016 New Jersey would be paying more in health benefits for retirees than for active employees.
"If there is any greater symbol for how untenable the system has become, I don't know what that is," he said.
Public employee unions challenged his moves in court, asking a judge to force Christie to put all available money, including the state's $300-million surplus, toward the $1.58-billion pension payment he had promised this year. But in a June ruling, a Mercer County Superior Court judge said Christie had acted within the scope of his emergency powers.
Though Christie may have pulled out a short-term victory, the issue is likely to have adverse consequences for his political prospects. He was once able to tout his work with Democrats on pension reform as his signature achievement, and it was regarded as one of his strongest talking points in a potential run for the White House in 2016.
In his 2012 speech to the Republican National Convention, for example, Christie boasted that his doubters claimed it was impossible to take on the public-sector unions and reform a pension and health benefits system that was headed to bankruptcy. "But with bipartisan leadership, we saved taxpayers $132 billion over 20 years and saved retirees their pensions. We did it."
Now New Jersey's precarious financial situation has given Democrats ammunition to question Christie's fiscal decisions, particularly after the three major bond-rating agencies downgraded the state's credit rating. That alone is reason for Christie to try to get control of the issue and look like he is working toward a new solution.
But the governor, whose second term has been dominated by investigations into his administration's role in a massive traffic jam near the George Washington Bridge, is also facing heat this week from his right flank. As he heads to Iowa to raise money in his role as head of the Republican Governors Assn., a conservative group known as the Judicial Crisis Network is airing digital ads faulting Christie for not doing enough to change the liberal makeup of the New Jersey Supreme Court.
The ads criticize him for the reappointment of Chief Justice Stuart Rabner as part of a bipartisan deal to break an impasse over judicial nominations. (In exchange for the reappointment, Christie was able to appoint a Republican judge to the position of associate justice.)
"Chris Christie promised to change New Jersey's liberal Supreme Court. Five openings later: no change. Instead, a liberal Democrat for chief justice," the ads' narrator says. The group said it
paid $75,000 for the digital ads, which will appear in Iowa over the next week.
"They should get their facts straight," Christie advisor Mike DuHaime said in an email. "Gov. Christie has nominated multiple conservatives to the Supreme Court, but several have been blocked by the Democrat state Senate. Despite this, three Republicans have been added to the court, making it more conservative than the one he inherited. Yet this group has been noticeably absent from each and every judicial fight Gov. Christie has had in New Jersey, showing up only to criticize after the fights are over."