If you’ve been following “Bridgegate,” the scandal currently engulfing Chris Christie, you are well aware, as every single story has explained, that this threatens Christie’s image in two ways. The first is that it reinforces a media narrative about him, which means it’s the kind of scandal that sticks: he’s a bully. The second is that it undermines his populist appeal and his anti-corruption bona fides. (Though his apologetic press conference today will probably win back points on that score.)
Both explanations are true, which is why they’ve proliferated as if they’ve been sent from the wires. And yet, accurate as they are, these explanations don’t seem to quite get to the bottom of it. The question at the heart of this is: Why does the public like Chris Christie enough to make a Republican governor of New Jersey an early favorite for 2016? Yes, they like his honesty, his bluntness, his humor, and his relatable persona. But I think there’s a missing ingredient to his popularity.
Christie was the consummate outsider as a candidate for governor, but how he translated that into office really enabled him to own the moniker. The vast bureaucracy of the federal government, and bipartisan frustration with the status quo in Washington, presents true “outsider” politicians with an opportunity. It was an opportunity that catapulted Barack Obama to the presidency, but which turned out to be a cruel joke played on the voters: Obama, as Kevin Williamson has so cogently pointed out, is “the front man for the permanent bureaucracy, the smiley-face mask hiding the pitiless yawning maw of total politics.”
As a candidate, Obama truly was an outsider: though a senator, he had only just arrived in that august body, using his community-organizer credibility to promise a government of the people, a tree directed by its roots. As president, however, Obama has been exactly the opposite of an outsider. He has become one with the bureaucracy, not only not a leader but barely even a manager.
Looking back at the some of the moments when Western democracy truly asserted itself and proved its unmatched value to the politics of the world, it’s impossible not to repeatedly bump into the outsider presidents, people who rebelled against the bureaucracy that expected to capture them–a government of insiders who shuddered at the thought their new leader.
As David McCullough chronicles in his biography of Harry Truman, when FDR died and Truman took over, “People were fearful about the future of the country.” The head of the TVA said “The country and the world don’t deserve to be left this way.” Top generals disapproved too. Truman was such an outsider that FDR kept him out of the loop–unconscionably, considering his health. The president of the United States took the helm during World War II and had to be briefed on virtually everything that was going on in the White House.
And yet that very distance was liberating to Truman, even if he wanted to govern as he thought FDR would have–in part because, thanks to being kept in the dark, he didn’t actually know how FDR was governing most of the time. From challenging the labor unions to pushing back against Soviet encroachment, Truman successfully (if imperfectly) navigated the obstacles of the emerging postwar world. Eisenhower is often celebrated for his “realism,” but that’s because he largely maintained the American position of strength he inherited from Truman.
The Cold War that began in earnest on Truman’s watch ended in earnest on the watch of another political rebel, Ronald Reagan. He worried diplomatists in Washington by exhorting Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” He had worried hardliners earlier with his off-script diplomacy at the Reykjavik summit; Nixon said “no summit since Yalta has threatened Western interests so much as the two days at Reykjavik.”
He worried hawks with his drive to eliminate nuclear weapons. He worried doves with his drive for missile defense. Over and over again, he was right. But he had to navigate the established centers of authority on both right and left to get there, and he did so expertly. He remained enough of an outsider to do so.
And across the pond, Reagan’s ally was arguably more of a rebel against the establishment. Think of all the layers of resistance Margaret Thatcher had to break through to get to the prime minister’s office, and all the internal barriers she had to overcome once there–though of course the British premiership is structured differently than the American presidency, so the parallels are limited. (In some cases, though, that disparity makes Thatcher’s accomplishments even more impressive.)
Chris Christie’s time in office has given the impression that he would remain an outsider in Washington. Getting a Democratic state legislature in a heavily Democratic state to vote against the interests of the most powerful Democratic constituency was an example of an outsider undeterred by the entrenched power structure. When members of such an administration appear to use the authority of the state to take petty revenge on political opponents at the expense of the public, the impression is that the power structure has finally co-opted its would-be conqueror. To regain his footing, Christie will likely attempt to convince the public that he can still be trusted to tame the bureaucracy, and not be captured by it.