As the battle over the proposed takeover of Rutgers-Camden has evolved, the origins of the idea among South Jersey Democrats has been increasingly clear. So when reports surfaced that Democratic leader George Norcross was in negotiations for a “compromise,” it appeared that a breakthrough in the contentious battle was imminent. Then Governor Christie stepped in to re-iterate, “I’m supporting my plan, we’re going to move forward with my plan, and my plan is going to be implemented.” So is it Christie’s plan after all? Not necessarily.
For months, it appeared that Christie was the perfect straight man for South Democratic proponents of the takeover. Give him any situation involving the takeover, and he was bound to hold firm to his support for pushing it through. Bill Brown questions him repeatedly at a public forum, and the governor calls him an idiot. Frank Lautenberg sticks his nose into the controversy, and he’s a political hack. North Jersey Democrats speak up for getting additional resources to universities in their region, and Christie accuses them of having their noses in the trough. Even as the head of the state’s office of higher education, Rochelle Hendricks, said it would take at least two months before costs for the merger could be calculated, Christie vowed to have the Barer recommendations in place by July 1. You can almost feel the governor’s itchy finger on the trigger that would execute the proposal by executive action.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed during the months that controversy has surrounded the Barer report that Christie’s name remains in contention for the GOP vice presidential nomination. Some have pointed to the shouting incident with Brown as evidence that if Christie has been auditioning for a place on the ticket, he has exposed a damaging weakness for losing his temper. Don’t be too quick to discount the value of such an exchange to Christie’s ambitions.
Traditional calculations for vice presidential partners would seem to argue against Christie. What Romney needs most, it would seem, is a bridge to social conservatives who distrust him and someone from another part of the country. But Romney has another set of challenges that Christie meets very well. If he is perceived as a flip-flopper, who better to balance that perception than a running mate who refuses to budge on any position once he has taken it? Christie’s confrontational style is tailor-made for attacking the opposition, a traditional role for vice presidential candidates and one he can be counted on to do with greater effect than Sarah Palin did in 2008. Finally—and this is where the battle over higher education comes in—he can be sold as a man who has advanced a conservative agenda equaling if not exceeding Wisconsin’s Scott Walker without the turmoil that has roiled Wisconsin politics. In contrast, Christie has rolled back union benefits with bipartisan support.
The battle over the Rutgers-Camden takeover plays into that narrative perfectly. Just take a look at the video where Christie lashes out at Lautenberg’s intervention as more of the “inside the beltway politics,” while portraying himself as the policymaker who gets things done with bipartisan support.
We don’t know what Christie expects of South Jersey Democrats in the long run, but he, not they, would seem to have the advantage at the moment. They are the ones desperate to appropriate the Rutgers-Camden resources. Win or lose, Christie, on the other hand, can remain himself—decisive, unbending, and making things happen. Even if he never gets the call from Governor Romney, he comes across as authentic and tough, two qualities that score high in Republican ranks. One can just hear him thinking, let the details of higher education work themselves out over time. More immediately, there’s still the lure of higher office.