Forget the acceptance speech. If you want an example of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s imposing political IQ, watch the nine-minute impromptu speech he delivered in Sea Bright a few days before the election. The impeccable populist instincts that make Christie such a formidable politician were all in play – authenticity, empathy, combativeness.
It’s the latter that is the most widely discussed aspect of Christie’s political persona: It involves the gruff New York-area politico with the disposition of a teamster. This is a guy who will look you in the eyes when he calls you on your b.s. It’s the guy who reacts to Warren Buffett’s pleas for higher tax rates by saying “Yeah, well, he should just write a check and shut up.” It’s the guy who tells a pestering liberal law student that he’s an “idiot.” (“I mean, damn man, I’m governor, could you shut up for a minute?”) The guy who calls out a former White House doctor, the one who suggested that he lose weight, a “hack” and, yes, tells her to just “shut up.”
Christie wants a lot of people to shut up. The right people, usually.
Will the bluntness work on the national stage is the question a lot of people are asking? When he runs for president, will the average Minnesotan or Coloradan find this character refreshing? Boorish? Exotic?
Growing up in the NYC area, the Christie type is certainly familiar to me. And those with a similar upbringing will also recognize the cadence, the mannerism and demeanor. Christie is the counter guy at the local deli who acts like he’s doing you a favor — “Hey, guy, what do you need?” He’s busy. He’s got important things to do; or, at least, a lot more important than whatever you’re whining about. Attack is his default position when challenged. The flipside is his gregarious nature. And as often as we hear about Christie yelling at some union mouthpiece, he’s less famously engaging voters in an earnest way.
So what happens when Christie starts telling Midwesterners — people who live in states where they smile at you for no particularly reason or say hi to you on the street even if they’ve never met you — to shut their pieholes?
There are many reasons Christie might never be president, but his manner is not one of them. Kevin Drum claims Americans will be turned off by Christie’s “famous bullying of ordinary citizens.” This was exactly what liberals were telling us would happen in New Jersey. It never did. Maybe that’s because what he’s really famous for is confronting political adversaries just like an ordinary citizen would – or wish they could. (How many parents would love the opportunity to yell at their kids’ teachers, ‘Do your job!’?) Certainly, that’s part of his appeal. Maybe it’s refreshing. It’s the frankness that validates the authenticity. Anyway, how likely is it that voters in Arizona or Virginia will be more appalled by Christie’s conduct than the voters (over 55 percent of them women) in Democratic Party-heavy New Jersey, who’ve seen him up close for years?
Take this little snippet from a story about New Jersey voters:
Another voter, Rosemarie, likes Christie but disagrees with his opposition to the ballot question on raising the minimum wage in New Jersey.
“Although I don’t agree with everything he does,” she added. “He’s definitely a strong candidate.”
On the Rutgers University campus in Camden, Asher says he was against the governor’s now-dormant plan to merge the school with Rowan University.
“I don’t hate him, though,” Asher said.
And what about Christie’s personality? “I kind of like him — he seems like a real person. I saw him on ‘The Daily Show (with Jon Stewart),’ and he loves Bruce Springsteen.”
There are few things an elected official works harder at than pretending to be a “real” person. Christie is comfortable playing himself. It doesn’t feel like he’s reaching for a mental cue card with talking points every time he answer a question. And when he doesn’t want to answer a question, Christie tells you “it’s none of your business.” Lawyer, lobbyist, governor, perhaps, but the perception is that he is as real as real gets in major league politics. Even when you disagree with him, you rarely dislike him. That kind of public currency goes a long way.
He might not be what conservatives want, but he may be what they need. Sure, there’s a lot we don’t know about Christie’s politics. Though he’s probably a conservative in the true sense of the word, he almost certainly isn’t an ideologue. So you can imagine that the rank and file will continue to be displeased with the intensity of his political convictions. The “strain” of libertarianism that was at the center of Rand Paul’s fight against the NSA, and the nasty back-and-forth with House Republicans who were aiming for a porkless Hurricane Sandy relief bill, were two examples of Christie rejecting (what he sees as) ideology for practicality. This is often confused with cynical moderation.
Christie is a product of a Northeastern Republican tradition that is expert at running bureaucracy, not standing athwart history, yelling Stop. He’s a politician like everyone else — in some ways, even more true to the vocation than others. Actually, the factors that make someone like Rand Paul and Christie compelling are entirely different. The latter doesn’t spend too much time reflecting on democracy’s role during Jim Crow (as interesting a topic as that might be), he wants to know where the &%#@&?$%# money is for Sandy relief. That’s why Christie probably wouldn’t sound like a very good Senator, though there is the strong possibility that he might make a very good national candidate.