January 2014, two years before the Iowa caucuses and already Chris Christie, the pugnacious governor of New Jersey, has been handed the Black Spot. His chances of securing the Republican party’s presidential nomination are already ruined. Or so the likes of Jonathan Chait would have us believe.
Why? Because, well because Chris Christie is a New Jersey kind of politician. With all that entails. And because he’s a punk and a bully. Christie is guilty on each of these charges.
Let’s rewind. Last September Christie, running for re-election, was keen to harvest endorsements from Democratic figures in the Garden State. This would make him seem a presidential kinda guy. The sort of man who can win – and win, er, large – in Democratic states.
Plenty of Democratic politicians in New Jersey did endorse Christie. Hell, he was going to win and it pays to keep on the governor’s good side. (Or better side).
But not all Democratic mayors rolled over for the governor. Mark Sokolich, mayor of Fort Lee, a town just across the river from New York City, declined to endorse Christie. Heck, Sokolich is a Democrat.
No-one messes with Chris Christie however. Not on his home turf anyway. And if you do mess with Chris Christie you should know you’ll be messed-with in turn.
I must say that causing traffic chaos by shutting a couple of lanes on the George Washington Bridge (above) linking Fort Lee with New York City isn’t the most obvious method of punishing your political opponents but that’s what it seems Christie’s team decided to do.
As leaked emails and texts demonstrate Christie’s people appear to have decided that this was a good – and entertaining! – idea. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” Christie’s Deputy Chief of Staff suggested. That’s petty enough but the enjoyment Christie’s staff derived from the ensuing gridlock – which included making it hard for children to get to school on time – makes it all worse. (So of course does the governor’s initial suggestion that the lane closures were about conducting a “traffic study”). A text conversation between Christie folk:
“Is it wrong that I am smiling?”
“I feel badly about the kids.”
“They are the children of Buono voters.”
That would be Barbara Buono. The Barbara Buono Christie hammered by 22 motherfuckin’ points.
Obviously for anyone in the game this is all very amusing (this includes pundits, by the way). Obviously, too, people can’t help but mention Tony Soprano in relation to Christie’s revenge on the hapless citizens of Fort Lee. This seems unfair on Tony Soprano. When a mobster wants you to learn a lesson he wants you to know you’re learning it from him. As Josh Barro points out, Sokolich’s people had no idea what any of this was about. So this was stupid and incompetent. But fun! (Christie, it should be noted, says he didn’t know anything about this and will whack anyone who did.)
Not that stupidity and incompetence are necessarily impediments to achieving (relatively) high office of course but, still, it might actually be worse that Christie’s staff were, presumably, staging this little show for their own private entertainment. Look at what we’ve done to the poor sap! And he doesn’t even realise it’s us!
Equally predictably people – including Alec MacGillis – have been quick to compare Christie with Richard Nixon. Watergate was petty and pointless too! Nixon was going to thrash McGovern anyway! (And, of course, did.)
This seems unfair on Richard Nixon. True the old boy was a paranoid, bilious, thin-skinned, cloyingly shameless crook but he was also elected President of the United States twice (and might have won in 1960 too). Chris Christie hasn’t done anything yet.
Moreover, plenty of people hated – no, loathed – Dick Nixon and that’s something worth remembering next time anyone tries to tell you American politics is unusually – and damagingly – polarised at present. Nixon was a bully too. But so was Lyndon Johnson and so were the Kennedy boys. They won too.
So being a bully isn’t necessarily an impediment to success. Nor is being a sociopathic prick. True, these traits are harder to shake-off or overcome in the Age of Twitter and Facebook but, still, not many nice guys ever get to become President of the United States.
I suspect these obituaries for Christie’s chances are premature and otherwise exaggerated. It is a setback chiefly because it confirms – to those who wish these things confirmed – some underlying suspicions about Christie’s character and habits and scandals that confirm pre-existing suspicions are always insidiously dangerous to a candidate.
Nevertheless, the biggest problem Christie faces is not so much that he’s an ass or a jerk or a bully but whether he can successfully persuade the Republican party that he’s the kind of jerk who can beat – presumably – Hillary Clinton in 2016. Electability not character or policy is Christie’s problem. Or rather, the latter two issues are a problem in as much as they effect perceptions of Christie’s viability in a general election.
The GOP, after all, rarely nominates a virgin. That is, the party is prepared to accept some regrettable, even disreputable, past mistakes if this regrettably-soiled candidate seems to have the best chance of prevailing in November. Romney, McCain and the elder Bush were each accepted more in sorrow than in anger. They were the best available.
Christie’s problem is that he’s the kind of guy Republicans think they’d like to like but whom the party doubts can actually win in November. Especially against Hillary. Sure, his attitude is fine now when the party is in the doldrums of opposition. They like Christie’s stand up and fight damnit style and his willingness to fire howitzers at, say, teaching unions. It’s a bruising style that cheers people up. Hark at his manliness! Coo as he kicks another liberal pansy in the groin!
That’s fine now. Or has been until now. But the calculation will be different in the spring of 2016. Then Christie will need to be the kind of candidate voters can imagine in the White House, the kind of candidate they are comfortable with seeing on the TV screens and smartphones every day for four years.
This cockamamie “scandal” might well linger as a warning from Christie’s past that he – and the people he surrounds himself with – are wrong ‘uns. Even so, I suspect there are some Republican voters – a good number of them, in fact – who think that if the Democrats nominate Hillary Clinton the GOP will need to fight fire with fire. If that proves the case then, in a perverse sense, this kind of thing could (perhaps!) still help Christie win the nomination.
He may be a jerk and a sonofabitch but he’s our jerk and our sonofabitch and this is the kind of election in which we need a sonofabitch if we’re to win a bitter and angry and doubtless dirty campaign. And anyway, electability is a relative, not an absolute, concept.
And, hell, you may also care to remember how many times Dick Nixon was declared dead and buried. Besides, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio and all the others have, you know, issues too…