Commentary Magazine


Can Christie Be Christie and Win in 2016?

Yesterday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie bolstered his regular-guy image by performing as a guest host on New York’s WFAN Sports Radio morning show. For those not conversant with the world of New York or sports radio, the FAN is the most influential and widely listened-to sports station in the nation’s biggest market, and that kind of free platform is the sort of thing all the money in the world can’t buy a politician looking to burnish his brand. This wasn’t his first appearance on “Boomer & Carton,” and once again Christie demonstrated that he’s not only an experienced showman but is someone who can speak credibly about sports (he sometimes calls in to sound off on the subject under the moniker of “Chris from Mendham”). During the course of four hours of non-stop palaver while subbing for vacationing former football star Boomer Esiason, Christie was his typical blunt and opinionated self, defending favorites like New York Jets Coach Rex Ryan and expressing disdain for the New York Yankees (he’s a Mets fan).

That’s all well and good, and he’s as entitled to his opinion on such burning topics as whether Jets fans are too hard on quarterback Mark Sanchez as anyone else. Moreover, his behavior on the show, like the YouTube videos of his encounters with the citizens of New Jersey on political topics, employed the same in-your-face style that endeared him to conservatives nationwide who loved watching him dress down liberals, union bosses, teachers, and anyone else who contradicted him (or at least they did until he hugged President Obama after Hurricane Sandy last fall). But with the growing likelihood that Christie will run for president after his almost certain reelection as governor this fall, the reaction to yesterday’s show makes me wonder whether Christie can go on being Christie once the long slog to 2016 really begins for him. While the Garden State and his fans think there’s nothing wrong with the governor routinely calling people “idiots” now, will that sort of off-hand nastiness be accepted from a presidential candidate?

The question is brought to mind by the reaction to one of Christie’s “idiot” riffs by New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica who objected to the governor characterizing the News’s Jets beat reporter Manish Mehta as “a complete idiot” as well as being “self-consumed” and “underpaid” for pressing Jets coach Ryan about some inexplicable blunders during a game this past weekend. Lupica, in the worst tradition of tabloid journalism, attempted to hype the comment into a full-blown feud between Christie and the paper in a column today that included a boxing style “tale of the tape,” contrasting the average sized and largely unknown reporter with the supersized famous Republican. The piece is itself best described as fairly idiotic, all the more so since Lupica, who sometimes does double duty for the News supplying liberal opinion columns for its news section, makes no secret of the fact that he has a political axe to grind against Christie.

But as foolish as all this might be, it does point out two flaws in Christie’s armor that might not play as well on the national stage as it does in the New York-metro area. In blasting the scribe, Christie was, after all, behaving the same way he often does on the stump: like a thin-skinned bully who shows little respect to not just opponents, but ordinary people who have the temerity to confront him or who displease him in some way. It may be all in fun when sports-talking on the FAN, but does anyone really think this sort of incident won’t be blown out of proportion if it happened in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, or any other primary or caucus state?

Christie’s answer may be to say that the country will have to take him as he is. And there could be more value for him in not changing than in modifying his behavior to please voters outside of his home area who might regard it as insufferable. Indeed, it could well be that a toned-down Christie wouldn’t play as well as the real McCoy. But those who expect that he can go on calling people “idiots” all the way to the White House (a group that probably includes the governor) need to understand that the rules for national presidential politics are not the same as the ones by which we judge governors in Northeast states.

One of Christie’s biggest assets is his authenticity, and the contrast between him and the last GOP presidential candidate on that score couldn’t be greater. But once you start running for president, your statements get scrutinized in ways they’ve never been before. If he really wants to be president, he may discover that all the bluster in the world won’t be enough to undo the damage an ill-considered and insensitive remark causes.

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