Even some of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s biggest supporters have always understood that one of his greatest strengths is also a potential weakness. The governor’s blunt manner and the delight he takes in personally taking on opponents helped make him a YouTube star and fueled the talk about a 2016 presidential run. But the same quality that makes people cheer his angry dismissal of foes can also seem overbearing or the mark of a bully. I’ve often wondered whether Christie’s in-your-face style would play as well outside of New Jersey and the New York media market, especially once he began to receive the kind of micro-coverage from the national press corps that any presidential candidate must expect. So while one must take the New York Times’s Christmas present to the governor in the form of a highly critical feature focusing on stories about Christie taking revenge on his foes in the context of liberal fears about his popularity, the article also illustrates how tales of his temper can catch up with him.
The piece, which graced the front page of the holiday edition of the Times, is a compendium of stories about how Christie treats those who cross him. Like many another powerful politician, the governor does not hesitate to use his power to punish critics and political enemies and to reward his friends. In that sense, there is nothing unique about Christie’s behavior. But placed in the context of his well-publicized lack of tolerance for opposing views, it is not entirely unfair to assert that it comes across as bullying. However, the question for Americans about Chris Christie is not only whether they like his personal style but also whether they are ready for a president who embraces the perks of power with the kind of gusto that he exudes.
The problem that this story, and the scores like it that will follow from a national media eager to take Christie down in the years that still separate us from the formal start of the 2016 campaign, is that there is a fine line that separates a truth-telling man of the people, as the governor’s friends think of him, from that of the public bully that comes across in the Times story. Voters love it when Christie tells his critics to go to hell not just because they often agree with him but because they like the authenticity he projects. Unlike so many in our political class, there is no deception or posing with Christie. He tells us what he thinks and dares us to disagree in a manner that speaks well for his integrity, especially when compared with most of the products of a political culture in which every utterance or gesture is poll-tested before being trotted out. If he thinks someone is misrepresenting him or his policies, he says so in unvarnished terms that leave little doubt of his opinion. His willingness to say what he thinks and to show his emotions and even his disdain gives him credibility because what Americans most want from their political leaders is honesty.
But it must be admitted there is a point when such conduct can cross the line into rudeness and ill humor that speaks more to Christie’s natural irascibility than it does his candor. That is a danger to his prospects in 2016 simply because likeability often counts more in presidential politics than anything else. That means that if Christie is to succeed, in the next two years he’s going to have to work just as hard at showing the more attractive aspects of his personality than in lashing out. That shouldn’t be a problem, as he has already shown us that he has a good sense of humor, including the ability to laugh at himself (as his pulling a donut out of his pocket on David Letterman’s show illustrated), as well as having the kind of quirks (such as his struggles with his weight and his devotion to Bruce Springsteen) that will humanize him in ways that Mitt Romney was never able to do. But it is an open question whether the examples of temper tantrums and exaction of revenge on political critics and foes will outnumber the instances of the more appealing aspects of his personality as the run-up to the primaries continues.
But just as important is the question of whether we are really ready for an old-school style politician who isn’t shy about using raw power in open view. While all of our recent presidents have sought to help their friends and to punish their enemies, modern national political figures have preferred to pose as being above such petty concerns. We haven’t had a president who consistently allowed himself to be seen acting in this manner since the days of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. Needless to say that is not the sort of comparison Christie or any other 2016 contender would like and it is exactly the reason that the Times and other mainstream liberal outlets will work hard to establish this image.
Yet in an era in which the most popular complaint about Congress and other branches of government is one of dysfunction, there may be an opening for a candidate who is not ashamed of exercising power. Christie’s brand is not just that of a tough-talking guy but also as a man who can get things done even if means ruffling feathers and stepping on toes. Whether such a stance will play well in Middle America, especially in southern and western states where conservatives are already skeptical about Christie’s supposed moderation, is open to question. But since a shift to a cuddlier Christie is unlikely and liable to be viewed as fake, if he is to be elected president it will have to be on his own terms.