It’s not an accident that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and President Donald Trump are friends. Both tend to be contemptuous of the conventions that normally govern the behavior of public figures. Christie has never shrunk from berating reporters or citizens alike in ways that most politicians would never dare. As for Trump, we all know he is bound by no constraints in his dealings, whether in public or private.
Trump is still getting away with the sort of behavior that most people label misconduct but his base cheers or tolerates. Indeed, while his offensive tweets about Mika Brzezinski have, like his “Access Hollywood” tape boasts about sexually harassing women, have earned him bipartisan condemnations and media overkill, they don’t appear to have influenced that solid 35-40 percent of the electorate to abandon him.
But Christie’s ability to rise above controversy is at an end. Therein hangs a lesson for all politicians about the difference between populism and arrogance. Voters will often forgive or even cheer high-handedness and abusive behavior from their leaders so long as they feel they are standing up for them. But they will never forgive those who treat the perks of public office as something to which they are entitled.
‘Beachgate’ Is Christie’s Coup de Grace
Christie never learned that some rules of politics cannot be transgressed. No one minds much when a billionaire enjoys his own money in even a flamboyant manner. But no one likes it when politicians even of relatively modest means shove their perks in voters’ faces.
If “Bridgegate” fatally wounded Christie’s once promising hopes for the presidency, then “Beachgate” — which broke over the holiday weekend — is the coup de grace for his political career. With only months left in his term as governor, Christie was already at historic lows in the polls. But one shudders to think to what levels they will sink in the wake of the publications of pictures showing him using a state beach that was closed to the public as the result of a government shutdown.
Leaving aside the question of who deserves the blame for the shutdown — which belongs as much to the stubbornness of the Democratic-controlled legislature as to Christie’s unwillingness to compromise — the optics were atrocious. They were compounded when Christie was caught lying about using the beach when the press asked about it. Nor will anyone accept his dismissal of complaints in which he told frustrated citizens who were locked out of the state’s prime recreational attraction on a holiday weekend that if they wanted to enjoy a state park as if it were a private beach, they should run for governor.
Why Do Voters Like It Some Times and Not Others?
This is far from the first time Christie has behaved in this manner. From refusing to rush home from a Florida vacation to deal with a snow emergency in his first term to his insistence on staying in New Hampshire to campaign for president during a flood, Christie never thought he ought to be seen doing his job when others were in distress.
Nor did he refrain from using the private benefits of public office in ways that demonstrated his contempt for public opinion. His use of a state helicopter to attend his son’s baseball game (“coptergate”) as well as his willingness to accept expensive gifts from wealthy friends both domestic (like Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys) or foreign (King Abdullah of Jordan) all showed a level of Olympian level of contempt for public sensibilities.
But we’re forgetting that Christie’s popularity in his first term was based in no small measure on some of the same qualities that did him in later on. Videos of his town hall question and answer sessions made him a YouTube star and a potential presidential candidate in 2012. Conservatives loved when he told off annoying journalists or silenced tough questioners like public school teachers because he was showing he wasn’t bound by the rules that normally restrict the way politicians act and speak.
Trump has profited from that same factor, which enabled him to survive a host of gaffes that would probably have sunk a conventional candidate. But if Trump’s supporters still cheer when he breaks the rules others dare not transgress, in large measure it’s because they think he’s doing it for them. Many Republicans and Independents felt that way about Christie too when he was challenging public-sector unions and entrenched state interests that were pushing New Jersey toward bankruptcy, just as they have threatened many other states and municipalities. That’s what enabled him to not only become a national figure but also win a landslide re-election in an otherwise solidly Democratic state.
But there is a fine distinction to be made between that sort of populist appeal and appearing as if you are out for yourself. As much as Trump’s liberal critics snipe about his tax returns and imply that he and his relations are in politics to turn a profit, few among his supporters buy that charge. They think he’s too rich to be bought and has insufficient motivation to put his company’s bottom line above the public good. That’s why he can continue to live like a billionaire while flouting notions of common decency on Twitter and still appearing like an everyman to his fans.
Acting Brazenly for Me Is Fine. Not For Yourself
But Christie, who does not posses great wealth, has suffered a historic collapse of popularity in large measure because his iconoclasm is not as prominent as a belief that he is primarily interested in taking advantage of the perks of the governorship.
Christie managed to avoid being thrown in the dock for the traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge his staff created in a bizarre attempt to exact revenge on a political rival. But the fact that he wasn’t prosecuted for “Bridgegate” along with some of his closest aides didn’t limit the political damage, because it appeared to be in character for a man who already had a reputation as a bully.
It’s easy to believe someone who thinks he has the right to intimidate questioners at town halls and journalists would think nothing of using crippling rush hour bridge traffic to send a message to someone. That he now gets caught using a public beach when everyone else is shut out and says “too bad” is all part of the same picture.
The examples Trump and Christie have set may be hard to match even for someone with their outsize personalities. But any aspiring office seeker who thinks he or she can play the plainspoken truth-teller card must also remember why Trump hasn’t yet lost his core support.
You can get away with just about anything if voters think you’re doing it for them. But once they think you’re just another pol on the make, you’re finished. That more than anything else is why Christie’s political obituary is already written even before he’s left his state-financed homes.