clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Chris Christie's tragic flaw: Telling it like it is

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie waves while announcing his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination at Livingston High School on June 30, 2015 in Livingston Twp., New Jersey.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie waves while announcing his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination at Livingston High School on June 30, 2015 in Livingston Twp., New Jersey.
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Four years ago, Chris Christie was the golden boy of the GOP. He seized a blue-state governorship in 2009 after Republicans had lost the presidency and seats in Congress the year before. His tough-talking style and zeal for whipping public employee unions thrilled grassroots Republicans and party elites alike. Many Republicans wanted him to run for president in 2012. The Romney campaign vetted him as a possible vice presidential candidate. They asked him to give the keynote speech at the Republican National Convention.

Now, the two-term New Jersey governor has announced his 2016 bid for the White House to little applause from either the party's conservative base or the establishment types who were once so fond of him. He is an underdog yipping at the heels of a well-established pack of leaders, mired between Donald Trump and Rick Perry — at 4 percent — in the Real Clear Politics average of national GOP polls.

Christie's fall from grace is the story of a man who lost his party with the very same pugnacious, call-'em-like-I-see-'em candor that once rocketed him to stardom. His greatest asset and tragic flaw are the same trait: A need to aggressively let everyone know just what he thinks — even if it's how much he thinks of himself and how little he thinks of them.

The conventional political wisdom holds that the damage to Christie's standing comes from the Bridge-gate scandal, which certainly reinforced concerns that he was more of a bully than a straight-talker. That took a toll. But part of the reason Bridgegate did Christie such damage was that Republicans declined to rally around their one-time champion. The real question, then, is how Christie lost the Republican Party.

Christie began his career running against Republicans

Christie, 52, had a remarkably fast rise from low-level political has-been to governor and presidential candidate. What's most amazing about it is that it happened after he repeatedly tried and failed to oust fellow Republicans in primaries.

At 31, Christie filed to run against the Republican state Senate Majority Leader, John Dorsey, based on the incumbent's support for repealing an assault-weapons ban. Dorsey successfully challenged the signatures on Christie's petition to get on the ballot, and, as Olivia Nuzzi put it, "Christie’s first try at a political career had lasted about a week."

Then, Christie went after another Republican, winning the GOP primary and the general election for a seat on the Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders — the equivalent of a county council — with a campaign so dirty he later had to apologize for running an ad that suggested his opponent was under investigation when she was not. But that first stint in office wouldn't last long either.

Almost immediately after winning the job, he set his sights on taking a state Assembly seat and launched a primary campaign against another incumbent. Christie, still running on guns — and abortion rights — lost that bid and was ousted from his freeholders' seat as retribution for his disloyalty to the party.

It was a hard fall: Christie was out of politics as quickly as he had gotten in, and his record — one win, three losses — didn't mark him as a likely candidate to get out of Palookaville.

But then, George W. Bush came along. And Christie wrangled a pretty high-profile patronage job, as Alec MacGillis wrote for the New Republic last year.

"First, Christie sought the counsel of Bill Palatucci, a colleague at his firm. Years earlier, Palatucci had served as George W. Bush’s driver when he campaigned for his dad in New Jersey, and he advised Christie to raise money for Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign. Christie and Palatucci proceeded to pull in $350,000, more than enough for Christie to qualify as a Bush 'Pioneer'; he and Mary Pat also personally contributed $29,000 to Bush and other Republicans between 1999 and 2001. After the election, it came time for Bush to nominate a U.S. attorney for New Jersey, one of the biggest offices in the country. Palatucci pitched Christie to Karl Rove. It was a competitive field, and Christie had zero experience in criminal law; indeed, he had never so much as filed a motion in federal court. He got the nod."

Christie used the perch to investigate and prosecute politicians, including lots of Democrats, earning himself a reputation as a crusader against corruption in a state where kickback schemes aren't terribly hard to find. He easily won a contested Republican primary for governor in 2009, and positioned himself as a regular Joe against super-wealthy incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine. Christie won by about four percentage points. But it felt like a landslide for a Republican Party still reeling from the 2008 debacle.

For a while, Christie became a sensation on YouTube and cable television. He was willing to defend Republican principles at a time when the party was powerless. Christie's team understood the power of his persona and worked to make sure the rest of the party was well aware of it, as Jason Zengerle reported for New York Magazine in 2010.

Almost everywhere Christie goes, he is filmed by an aide whose job is to capture these "moments," as the governor’s staff has come to call them. When one occurs, Christie’s press shop splices the video and uploads it to YouTube; from there, conservatives throughout the country share Christie clips the way tween girls circulate Justin Bieber videos. "The YouTube stuff is golden," says Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review. "I can’t tell you how many people forward them to me." One video on Christie’s YouTube channel — a drubbing he delivered to another aggrieved public-school teacher at a town hall in September — has racked up over 750,000 views.

Now in Moorestown, Christie was hoping to create another such moment. After some introductory remarks, he opened the floor to questions. "For those of you who have seen some of my appearances on YouTube," he cautioned, peeling off his suit jacket as he spoke, "this is when it normally happens."

And Christie basked in the talk of a presidential bid, even though he didn't take the leap in 2012. Paul Mulshine of the Star Ledger, provided a window into Christie's thinking in a column last week.

When asked if he gets annoyed at the persistent questions concerning whether he'll run for president, for example, Christie reminded the room of his rock-star status.

"This stuff been going on since fall of 2010," he said. "Anybody who says they're annoyed at being considered for president has an ego even bigger than mine."

The clear implication was that no one has such an ego. That certainly seems to be the case.

Back to angering Republicans: There's no "I" in Romney.

There's no one who has more of a right to be aggrieved by Christie's self-serving behavior than 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Although Christie lost out on the vice presidential nod that year — he more or less failed the vet — he was awarded the keynote speaking slot at the GOP convention in Tampa.

Christie proceeded to talk about himself a little bit. And then a lot. And then so much that observers wondered whether he had forgotten he was there to endorse Romney. Reporters began counting the number of times he said "I" — more than three dozen, compared with seven mentions of Romney. Politico labeled the speech "a prime-time belly-flop."

Some thought Christie was sabotaging Romney to preserve his own ability to run for president in 2016. If Romney won in 2012, he would surely be the GOP's nominee four years later, meaning Christie would have to wait until at least 2020 to seek the presidency. Those suspicions grew stronger when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in October, just days before the election. Christie appeared with President Barack Obama and praised him lavishly, making him look both presidential and bipartisan at a crucial moment in the election.

President Barack Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talk with New Jersey residents at a community center on Oct. 31, 2012, after Hurricane Sandy pounded the East Coast. (Pete Souza / White House)

Pete Souza/The White House

This paragraph from the Washington Post on Oct. 30, 2012, about says it all.

'The federal government’s response has been great. I was on the phone at midnight again last night with the President, personally, he has expedited the designation of New Jersey as a major disaster area,' Christie, a top surrogate for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, said on NBC’s 'Today.'"

Christie, who was running for re-election in 2013 and had his sights set on the presidency in 2016, had plenty of political reason to cozy up to Obama. Then again, a hurricane had just devastated parts of his state. It was also the right thing to do for his constituents.

But that didn't make Team Romney any happier. Christie became a scapegoat for Romney's loss — so much so that the red flags raised in Romney's vet of the New Jersey governor for vice president made it into print in the book "Double Down" after the election. Most of it was in the public record already, but put together in one place, it didn't make Christie look good. There was an inspector general's report that found he spent a lot on travel and hotels as U.S. attorney, the defamation lawsuit from his days as a freeholder, a lack of transparency in his lobbying clientele and suspicion that he helped donors win contracts.

"Ever since he helped Obama at the peak of the campaign he has been a suspect to the far right," one Republican congressman told Vox.

Christie, for all his claims of straight talk, isn't particularly associated with any particular ideology or theory of governance within the party. His big, fresh idea is making a politically suicidal run at Social Security — which he actually started talking about in 2011 — and that didn't work out well for President George W. Bush. But he doesn't have a real calling card, like Ted Cruz's fight to repeal Obamacare, Rand Paul's run at the Patriot Act and drones, or Scott Walker's crusade against unions. All he had was his persona, and that's become a mixed bag at best.

Bridge-gate matters, but only because it highlights Christie's flaws

It's not just national Republicans who have soured on Christie. Voters in his home state don't like him much anymore, either. A recent poll showed his approval rating in the Garden State has dropped to 30 percent, and 38 percent of Republicans say they like Christie less since he started his job.

That's quite a turn from November 2013, when New Jersey voters re-elected Christie in a landslide. Some of that surely owes to the fallout from the investigation into top Christie aides closing lanes in Fort Lee, N.J., in September 2013, allegedly to exact political payback against the town's Democratic mayor.

Several former Christie administration officials have been indicted. While the governor has not been implicated, the scandal has become a metaphor for his take-no-prisoners brand of politics — both because of the lane closure and because of the quickness with which he distanced himself from longtime allies.

Indeed, the importance of Bridge-gate is that it serves as an easy-to-grasp reminder that Christie is willing to hurt people — including constituents, aides and fellow Republicans — to get what he wants. He says he's not a bully, but all evidence is to the contrary.

And even though Christie seems to get it at some level — his incessant talk about himself is sometimes self-deprecating and he appears to have made some effort to tone down his act a little at the edges — he can't seem to change course.

Jim Warren captured Christie well at the governor's 2014 inaugural address.

"His speech itself was a mix of bromides, clichés, political red meat and his characteristic self-absorption, with the use of the first-person pronoun nearly 20 times by my count. And this is a period of intended new humility for the White House wannabe."

Christie's abrasiveness is bad enough that it looks like he won't seriously compete in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, where voters aren't used to politicians shouting them down at town hall meetings. Instead, Christie's focused on New Hampshire, as top Christie financial backer Ken Langone indicated in an interview with National Journal published Tuesday.

"Look, you got to look at Iowa and that's those old ladies with knitting needles sitting around living rooms — I don't understand it," Langone said. "Forget Iowa. I say to you, the hell with Iowa, I'm trying to point out to you, I think the key election is New Hampshire."

And if anyone needed a reminder that Christie still thinks of himself as a bold truth-teller trying to modernize a cowardly, hidebound party, he's named the opening events on his campaign calendar in New Hampshire the "Tell It Like It Is Tour." When Republicans officials tell it like it is, they say Christie's his own worst enemy.