"You and me against the world
Sometimes it seems like you and me against the world
When all the others turn their backs and walked away
You can count on me to stay"
- Helen Reddy, "You and Me Against the World"
It was a speech heard 'round the country, but it was a speech directed at voters in New Jersey.
Gov. Chris Christie realized that this was not the time for partisan attacks, not the time for grand policy proposals, and not the time to stand up for his brand of conservatism. Instead, he delivered a safe State of the State speech last week that centered on Hurricane Sandy, its aftermath and recovery. The speech was long on unity, thanks and optimism, and short on mapping out an agenda beyond Sandy for the year to come.
It was, in essence, the model for the stump speech that will be given ad nauseum in towns throughout the state, and it relied on Christie's rhetorical claim of bipartisanship, a key ingredient for an incumbent Republican governor seeking re-election in a traditionally Democratic-leaning state.
Thus, this year's speech was also devoid of the conservative rhetoric that has characterized some Christie speeches in the past. Indeed, some would point to the ideological inconsistency of a politician who has railed against big government, taxes and government spending advocating for a massive $51 billion federal government storm-recovery expenditure that includes a program to provide homeowners with money to replant trees in storm-ravaged areas.
Yes, trees need to be replanted, but most conservatives - including Christie, if the trees were to be planted in another state - would argue that this is a federal-government overstep.
When contrasted with previous speeches, this speech also lacked a grand policy agenda. Gone were last year's promises of a 10 percent across-the-board income tax cut. Pushed aside were the priorities of criminal justice reform and improvements to services for people with disabilities. Forgotten was the perennial issue of property tax relief. The only words spoken about New Jersey's skyhigh 9.6 percent unemployment rate were "unemployment is coming down."
This year, it was all about Sandy.
And certainly Sandy represents one of the largest public-policy challenges ever faced by a New Jersey governor. It clearly warrants Christie's attention. But that fact does not mitigate the reality that Sandy also represents a perfect distraction from other important policy issues that are less politically convenient for the governor to tackle.
Sandy enables the governor to cast himself as a bipartisan politician - one who even doles out criticism for members of his own party (indeed, even for some of the folks he spent months campaigning for). And Christie knows that "bipartisan" sells well in New Jersey.
But Christie's political ascendancy has not been built on building bridges or unifying rhetoric. Christie's success hinges on a well-placed opponent.
Christie ran in 2009 as the quintessential political outsider, promising to "shake things up in Trenton." Like the true prosecutor he is, Christie has relied on a vilified "them" throughout his career - Trenton politicians, labor unions, teachers or Democratic legislators - to effectively rally "us" to his side. And this us-versus-them dynamic has delivered most of his political successes.
But for this re-election bid, Christie recognized the need to exercise caution. One can't vilify Democrats in a state where there are more of them than Republicans.
So in a bipartisan, post-Sandy, feel-good frenzy, who can be the enemy?
Enter Congress, stage right.
Christie, the master political strategist that he is, recognizes that Congress as a whole is a perfect foil for a new brand of us-versus-them politics - a key theme that has been essential in every facet of the governor's political career. For the next 10 months, Congress - with its 9 percent approval rating and its failure to allocate storm relief money before recessing - will remain a perfect foil for Christie.
A recent poll indicated that Congress is less popular than head lice, Donald Trump, cockroaches, traffic jams and root canal. And by the time Christie is done with it, Congress will probably be less popular than Lindsay Lohan and the Ebola virus.
And in finding the perfect foil for this year's gubernatorial race, Christie also has created a perfect segue into his much-speculated 2016 presidential run, when, with Congress as an arch-enemy, Christie will undoubtedly promise to "shake things up in Washington."
Brigid Callahan Harrison, of Galloway Township, is a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University. This column first appeared in The Record.