Sweeney or Christie: Who’s More at Risk?

Here’s the story line so far.*

After successfully corralling enough Democratic legislators to pass pension and benefit reforms, Senate President Steve Sweeney allows the liberal wing of his party to control the budget process in order to score political points off Governor Chris Christie.  The governor won’t be outplayed and exacts revenge by making bigger cuts than he initially proposed without giving Sweeney a heads-up.  Sweeney knows he has to make amends with the liberal wing of his party and launches a staged tirade against the governor.

I buy most of this storyline up until the final scene.  There is no other way to put it.  Steve Sweeney was pissed.

I’m not saying that he is unaware of his precarious political position within his own party.  Just that the expletive-laden rant was genuine.

He was mad about two things.  First, as he states, he feels that the cuts were punitive and landed too harshly on the poor.  Regardless of how you view Christie’s line item veto choices, I take Sweeney at his word that the cuts upset him.

Secondly, he’s mad not only at the governor, but at himself for misjudging the governor’s willingness to play along with the political script that the Democrats had crafted for the budget process.

The verdict on this drama is that Sweeney ended up the big loser in this political game.  I disagree.

Certainly, there is a chance that disgruntled Democrats could oust him as Senate President.  But I think he will remain in his post as long he goes to his fellow legislators with a mea culpa:  he was played by Christie, he was mistaken for assuming Christie would be more judicious in his cuts, etc. etc.

Whether Sweeney stays or not, though, the bigger risk is run by Chris Christie.  His political capital, both in the state and nationally, is built on his reputation for shaking up the system and getting big things done with bi-partisan support.

The risk for Christie lies in two areas.  First, he has given his political opponents a new epithet to use against him: “mean-spirited”.  The “bully” attack never really worked.  Few voters who don’t already disapprove of the governor’s policies think of him as a bully.  Among the remainder, bully may actually be a good thing considering what low opinion they have of the Trenton status quo.  However, mean-spirited is another matter entirely.

You can be a bully and still make decisions in the best interests of the state.  Being mean-spirited, on the other hand, means you make decisions based on personal political calculations in spite of what may be good for the state.  Whether or not you agree with Christie’s cuts, this line of attack can have some traction among female independent voters who have been wavering in their support for the governor.  [See here and here for a discussion of these voters.]

The other risk for Christie is where this leaves his erstwhile political allies in the legislative majority.  Steve Sweeney has been the single most important factor in the governor’s legislative success.  He has been the one thing standing between Christie and governmental deadlock.

While the other South Jersey Democrats and their Hudson and Essex coalition partners have supported the governor’s reforms, it is Steve Sweeney who has actually been a vocal advocate of these reforms for years.

If Sweeney is ousted from the leadership, Christie can bank on a complete shutdown of his legislative agenda.  But even if Sweeney stays on, Christie’s future success, particularly with education reform, is no sure bet.

The conciliatory tone of the governor’s office response to Sweeney’s diatribe is not part of a pre-orchestrated political gavotte, as some would have us believe.  It is the realization that Chris Christie needs Steve Sweeney more than Sweeney needs Christie.

While Steve Sweeney firmly believes in the education reforms that sit on his legislative docket, he now has little political or personal incentive to move them forward.  If he doesn’t, the big political loser in this dust-up may ultimately be Chris Christie.


The Record’s Charlie Stile lays out the scenario in more detail.

"He evolves like any other politician who knows how to flip a foe into a friend when necessary. He’ll do whatever it takes to survive."
—Bergen Record columnist Charles Stile, on Gov. Christie's sudden embrace of the way unemployment data is collected