Save for the first 11 sentences of his 46-minute state-of-the-state speech on Tuesday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s address was what it stood to be after his landslide November reelection: A blueprint for his campaign for president in 2016.
After the events of last week — his aides enmeshed in suggestions that they ordered an epic four-day traffic jam last September to punish a small-town mayor who failed to endorse a second Christie term — those first sentences were all anyone listened to, at least outside the state of New Jersey.
He repeated his apologies — though he used the passive “Mistakes were clearly made” without saying by whom — and vowed that his administration “will cooperate with all appropriate inquiries to ensure that this breach of trust does not happen again.”
“I am the governor and I am ultimately responsible for all that happens on my watch -- both good and bad,” he said, repeating what he said at Thursday's marathon news conference. “But I also want to assure the people of New Jersey today that what has occurred does not define us or our state.”
And then he turned to a litany of accomplishments and demands for the future — the speech he had wanted to give before the messiness intruded. He returned to his reelection theme of bipartisan achievements, which he has artfully used to cast himself as that unusual politician who gets things done in these starkly divided times.
“I want to thank this Legislature, and all New Jerseyans, for the cooperative, bipartisan and resilient spirit that you demonstrated in coming back from Sandy,” he said at one point, referring to the 2012 superstorm. “Let that spirit of Sandy be a powerful lesson to all of us, that when times are most difficult, cooperation and progress are possible. Indeed, I tell you they are necessary."
The question — likely unanswered until a swarm of investigations surrounding Christie concludes months from now — is whether that sentence rings differently now to all the audiences the governor sought to impress.
At a state level, the audiences are both voters and the legislators who are among those investigating the Christie administration’s actions and the governor’s level of involvement. He has repeatedly contended that he knew nothing of the plan to scramble traffic in Fort Lee, N.J., until last week.
Nationally, the audience most important to Christie are donors who might have flocked to the Republican front-runner’s side but now have reason to pause. And after that are, in descending order, the Republican base and independents and Democrats who he has held out the promise of attracting in a national race as he has in his two statewide races.
Is the image that comes to their minds when they hear his words one of a can-do governor happy to work across the aisle to get things done? Or is it one of governor who says as much, while at the same time his administration moves to mow down those who don’t see things his way?
As all of those audiences assess the damage, Christie was doing his best on Tuesday to turn the page. Each of the criticisms that has been made of him in recent days was dealt with. Tonally, he seemed most intent on disproving the notion that he is a my-way-or-the-highway leader; he diverted from his prepared remarks in a few instances to praise others for their contributions to accomplishments or proposals.
He heralded the state’s economic recovery, achieved, he said, because of his initiatives. He proposed property tax cuts and curtailing the end runs that allow governments to raise “fees” by not calling them taxes.
“I will tell you one choice we will not make -- because it is one answer that will not help grow jobs in our state -- and that’s raising taxes,” he said.
He swiped at ineffective teachers, the prevalence of sick-pay disbursements to public workers and spiraling pension costs for unionized employees — all topics attractive to national Republicans.
But he also struck a sentiment reminiscent of George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservative” approach in the 2000 presidential race, by emphasizing the need for public school funding, non-prison alternatives for nonviolent criminals and drug treatment facilities for those seeking relief from addiction.
“My belief is simple: Every human life is precious, and no life, no life, is disposable,” he said.
As Bush did with No Child Left Behind, he called for more robust demands on schools — including a longer school day and school year.
And he repeatedly asked legislators to work with him on those goals, as if hoping that their meetings from now on would not center solely on investigations that could spell the end of his political aspirations.
“Let’s choose to do it together,” he said, adding later: “Let us not abandon that course.”
Twitter: @cathleendeckerCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times