Months after the Republican Party’s electoral flameout, analysts are still sifting for embers amid the ashes. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, despite his act of heresy in praising Barack Obama for his response to Hurricane Sandy, has joined the predictable frontrunners for 2016. At first blush, it’s hard to see what Christie brings to the table for the GOP.
Consider, in comparison, some of the other big names. Marco Rubio is a conservative demographer’s dream, a living, breathing solution to the party’s Latino, youth, and coolness problems. Jeb Bush, meanwhile, has the dynastic clout to go with his formidable bipartisan swing-state credentials. He has establishment connections to burn, and he has staked out legitimately moderate positions on immigration, education, and other key issues. Perhaps most important, both men are based in electoral-vote-heavy Florida, which looks to be a must-win for GOP presidential contenders.
On paper, Christie can’t compete with these guys. His geographic credentials are negligible—the GOP isn’t going to win in the Northeast with or without the New Jersey governor on the ticket. His supposedly “moderate” views consist more of ill-timed heterodox remarks than of substantive policy-making. And as a personality, it is hard to see how he matches up. He possesses neither Rubio’s panache nor Bush’s political savoir-faire. Yet recent polls show that Christie is extraordinarily popular—and it’s not just a function of his Hurricane Sandy response. With his bruising, take-no-prisoners approach to public life, Chris Christie is running a singular experiment among American politicians. In an era dominated by message discipline and carefully targeted advertising campaigns, he has built a career shooting from the hip. Can it work?
Christie’s playbook borrows at least a bit from John McCain’s 2000 presidential primary campaign. That year, Rolling Stone sent writer David Foster Wallace on the trail with McCain’s “Straight Talk Express.” As usual, Wallace produced an essay as substantively striking as it was stylistically unconventional. “Why,” he asked, “do these crowds from Detroit to Charleston cheer so wildly at a simple promise not to lie?”
Well, it’s obvious why. When McCain says it, the people are cheering not for him so much as for how good it feels to believe him. They’re cheering the loosening of a weird sort of knot in the electoral tummy. McCain’s résumé and candor, in other words, promise not empathy with voters’ pain but relief from it. Because we’ve been lied to and lied to, and it hurts to be lied to. It’s ultimately just about that complicated: it hurts.
Wallace thought that McCain’s strategy worked because Americans want so badly to believe in the beautiful idealism at the core of our political tradition, despite being constantly buffeted with evidence to the contrary. We want to believe that the perpetual cheapness and disappointment of our politics is the product of some sort of elite malpractice, rather than of ideological schism and structural malfunction.
If this was true twelve years ago, it’s palpably more so today, when our yearning for honest idealism has only been exacerbated by the staggering moral, political, economic, and environmental problems facing the nation. We are heirs to a rich political tradition, yet our governing institutions are hopelessly paralyzed. This dissonance fuels the various “just fix it” movements popping up at the margins of mainstream American politics, which taken together represent a substantial crowd of voters who want someone forthright to cut through Beltway nonsense. These are people who believe that our political problems are actually much simpler than they appear—that we could solve them if only we cleared away the deception and the partisanship and, well, the politics.
This isn’t the first time that this particular strain of resentment has surfaced in American politics. In the 1960s, segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace famously derided the “pointy-headed intellectuals” muddying American democracy. Just over a century ago, the Knights of Labor insisted that lawyers, bankers, gamblers, and other immoral parasites were all that stood in the way of a better United States of America. The original American straight-talker, Teddy Roosevelt, accused “malefactors of great wealth” of being “careless of the working men, whom they oppress, and of the State, whose existence they imperil.”
These—and other—American populists repeatedly argued that our gravest problems are solvable, if only we cut through the factors artificially distorting our politics. Today’s populists are no different. Barack Obama, the Tea Party, and Occupy Wall Street have all tapped into the same vein of frustration, albeit in competing and often incompatible ways. Each promises that our gravest political challenges are the product of manipulation by various bad-faith actors: cynical leaders, big-spending politicians, corporate elites, radical partisans, and the like.
In this regard, Chris Christie’s timing couldn’t be better. Like McCain, he has captured a bit of public-image quicksilver. But he has come by his political truth-teller credentials differently. He possesses none of McCain’s heroism. Rather, Christie has built his career around behaving unconventionally. He has defined himself as someone too concerned with problem-solving to bother with rhetorical window-dressing; as a guy who drives straight into controversy because it’s the only way to “just fix” things. Unlike most of his colleagues, he doesn’t appear polished enough to be a political creature. You’re not going to catch smooth operators like Rubio or Bush engaging in a shouting match with malcontented law students, as Christie famously did last year at a town-hall meeting near Trenton. (“Let me tell you something,” he railed at one interlocutor. “If after you graduate from law school you conduct yourself like that in a courtroom, your rear end’s gonna be thrown in jail, idiot!”)
A large subset of American voters, well aware that our political and fiscal challenges are actually brutal, wants to hear uncomfortable truths from its leaders. They’ll forgive disagreement, inaccuracy, and even incompetence in a source they trust. Christie recognizes that voters want brash honesty, so he consciously crafts himself to sound that way. His apparent lack of filter is very likely itself a filter. But if off-the-cuff becomes an act, is it still off-the-cuff? Does consciously manufactured brazenness have the same political luster as the real thing?
What’s clear is that this dynamic has given Christie substantial political freedom. Often his missteps come off as the frustrations of an honest man facing partisan ugliness, and his intermittent gaucheness is just the price of his earnestness. For disillusioned Americans dismayed to see politicians scrabbling for leverage amid meaningless slights, Chris Christie is a breath of fresh air.
This is a risky approach to politics. Tough-talking populism works wonders on squirrelly Beltway politicians, but it can backfire against less obviously dishonest opponents. It’s one thing to lambaste feckless congressional Republicans for failing to hold a timely vote on federal disaster funding after Hurricane Sandy. But it’s quite another to break with half a century of precedent, as Christie did in 2010, and refuse to reappoint one of New Jersey’s sitting supreme court justices—in this instance the court’s only African American—in an attempt to curtail court “activism.”
At his best, Christie boldly calls out prevaricators for evading or masking problems; at his worst, he comes off as a reckless ideological bully. Nowhere is this clearer than in his battles over education policy. Christie strives mightily to frame himself as the champion of underserved kids against a manipulative teachers union. But shining a spotlight on ways that union negotiators distort political discourse and undermine good policy-making is easy; what’s difficult is to enunciate a persuasive rationale for cutting the health and pension benefits of rank-and-file teachers. Teachers, after all, are popular. When Christie condemns union intransigence on stronger teacher accountability provisions, a growing number of voters nod along; but when he strays into attacking teachers and their “comfortable, staid, failed…methods,” he undermines his populist image.
A look at Christie’s critics shows that no one’s really sure what to do with him. Conservatives view his Hurricane Sandy partnership with President Obama as a betrayal, but still can’t bring themselves to excommunicate him. To some degree, conservative criticism only adds credibility to Christie’s unconventional image and boosts his standing among liberals who see him as far less pernicious than alternative Republicans. He’s not one of us, they think—but at least he’s not Paul Ryan or Eric Cantor! Such crossover appeal perhaps explains why progressives take special aim at Christie. Last summer, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman dismissed Christie’s ballyhooed “Jersey comeback” as mere smoke and mirrors: the state retains one of the highest levels of unemployment in the country, Krugman pointed out, and its budget-gap reductions have been achieved in part by deferring mandated pension-fund contributions. Christie’s populist style and bluster about “tough choices,” Krugman charged, are nothing more than cover for “what [he] really wants…tax cuts for the wealthy.”
It’s way too early to know whether Christie can keep his high-wire act going until 2016, though a successful gubernatorial reelection campaign in New Jersey this fall would surely stoke more speculation. What’s certain is that while Rubio, Bush, and other possible contenders—following Mitt Romney’s example—build their brands upon rhetorical contortions designed to suit various political constituencies, Christie can (and will) respond to changing political and electoral circumstances in whatever manner he likes.
How far can an American politician get by building his image around opposition to image politics? The answer will have less to do with Chris Christie, ultimately, than with us. It remains to be seen if Americans are sufficiently frustrated with politicians-as-usual to take a flyer on such a brash and abrasive exception. But one way or another, by 2016 we ought to know whether Christie’s forthright reputation was genuinely earned—or just another show.