Two previous moderate Republican presidential candidates faced similar conundrums when confronted with a party more conservative than they were. One shifted positions and benefited when his far-right opponents cannibalized one another; the other remained consistent and withdrew before Super Tuesday. There are lessons for Christie in the experiences of Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, respectively.
So what would be his approach?
Would the pragmatist who reached across the aisle when catastrophe hit stand straight-faced and tell primary voters he’d be uncompromising on the budget? I doubt it. Picture Christie onstage back in August 2011 at the debate sponsored by Fox News at Iowa State University. That was the evening Byron York from the Washington Examiner asked Rick Santorum a question that morphed into the notorious “10 for one” debacle:
“Democrats will demand that savings come from a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, maybe $3 in cuts for every $1 in higher taxes,” York noted. “Is there any ratio of cuts to taxes that you would accept? Three to one? Four to one? Or even 10 to one?”
Santorum said no, prompting Fox’s Bret Baier to put this question to all eight of the candidates onstage: “Can you raise your hand if you feel so strongly about not raising taxes that you’d walk away on the 10-to-one deal?” To big applause, every single hand—even Jon Huntsman’s—was held high in the air.
I’d like to think Chris Christie would have kept both hands in his pockets. And that even though he supports the death penalty, he would not have applauded when, at the Reagan library one month later, Rick Perry was saluted for having overseen 234 executions.
I’d also like to think he wouldn’t have remained silent when the idea of a man dying without insurance was welcomed. That came in Tampa, when Wolf Blitzer had an awkward exchange with Ron Paul. At a debate sponsored by the Tea Party Express, Blitzer put to Paul a hypothetical about a man without health insurance who has lapsed into a coma.
“Congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?” The candidates stayed quiet, while a few in the audience shouted “Yeah!” Maybe this would have been another chance for Christie to confront crazy, unafraid to incur the wrath of the crowd by exhibiting some reasonableness.
The “let him die” exchange happened on the same night that Rick Perry was booed for having ordered young girls in Texas to get the HPV vaccine. (Perry’s action also prompted Michele Bachmann to repeat on the Today show the medically unfounded allegation of a mother who claimed the vaccine caused her daughter’s mental retardation).
Ten days later, Perry’s sinking support was further weakened when he said that those who wouldn’t give a chance to children born here to illegals were heartless.
But, of course, a bigger story in Orlando that night came when a soldier serving in Iraq was actually booed. U.S. Army Reserve Captain Stephen Hill spoke of his own sexuality and wanted to know if any of the candidates would reinstate “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
How would Chris Christie have responded?
I’d like to think he’d have begun by thanking the man for his service. But maybe not.
Christie had his own run-in with a vet, one of a dozen outbursts since he was elected governor. When they take place in front of crowds, they usually bring the house down, and they attract thousands—sometimes hundreds of thousands—of YouTube views. Each has been the sort of encounter that plays well in New Jersey’s hardscrabble political world—but that might not be so well accepted on a wider stage.
Which raises the second major obstacle he faces. Christie’s independence, frankness and brains are assets. But his bombast might be a liability.
One nationally renowned Republican consultant I spoke to recognized Christie as a top contender, but described his looming third-act problem, to borrow a showbiz term: “How will his tough Jersey demeanor wear over time in the rest of the country? The GOP primary will ultimately be decided mostly in the highly mannered South, and the general election is won or lost in Midwestern and Sunbelt suburbs. That is a long way from Passaic County, New Jersey. Whether Christie can elevate his persona from a braying Jersey brawler always looking for enemies to scrap with to a presidential leader with a reassuring and elevated tone is the big open question of his campaign.”
One can already imagine a negative TV spot (like that run by Hillary Clinton in 2008) where a red phone rings at 3 a.m., juxtaposed with a montage of examples of Christie’s intemperance and questioning his ability to deal with Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There’d be lots of tape to choose from. And while there are certainly two sides to each encounter—some of his victims deserved his wrath—at a certain point, the sheer volume of his obstreperousness may overwhelm.
Certainly, no other politician would have told the teacher in Rutherford who complained of not being compensated for her own education or experience, “Well, then, you know what, you don’t have to do it.” And only Christie, a few months later, would have responded to another teacher, in Raritan—who charged that he’d done nothing but “lambaste” teachers—by saying: “I sat here, stood here, and very respectfully listened to you. If what you want to do is put on a show and giggle every time I talk, well then, I have no interest in answering your question. … ” (Christie did then proceed to give a long and substantive answer.)
Loretta Weinberg was his next foil. The state Senate majority leader upset Christie when she sought to link him to Essex County executive Joe DiVincenzo, who’d been in hot water for receiving a pension payment while still in office. Christie, incensed by Weinberg’s “hypocrisy,” implored the media to “please take the bat out on her for once.”
When Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle accused the Governor of misusing state resources by taking state police helicopters across the state, including to his son’s baseball games, he let her have it, too: “She should really be embarrassed at what a jerk she is.”
For another member of the Assembly, the label wasn’t “jerk,” but “numbnuts.” That was Christie’s response to Reed Gusciora, who, after the Governor’s veto of a marriage equality bill, compared him to segregationists George Wallace and Lester Maddox.
“Partisan hack” was once his descriptor for Senator Lautenberg, again generating loud applause. This time the debate was over Christie’s proposed merger of Rowan University and Rutgers-Camden, opposed by Lautenberg.
That merger was also the catalyst for a subsequent dressing-down of a former Navy SEAL. William Brown confronted Christie last March at a town hall in Florence. A videotape of the exchange and published news accounts document the aggressiveness of Brown’s questioning, which prompted Christie to say: “Let me tell you something. After you graduate from law school, you conduct yourself like that in a courtroom, your rear end is going to be thrown in jail, idiot.”
“I’m a combat veteran Navy SEAL, how’s that?” Brown responded before being escorted from the room by police.
There’s a thin line between channeling Warren Beatty in Bulworth and bullying. Drop an expletive once and you’re Everyman. (No one of these instances is itself a game-changer.) Twice, and you raise some eyebrows. But a dozen instances, and counting, might not play so well in New Hampshire.
We don’t elect effete men president (think John Kerry ordering a Swiss cheese-steak at Pat’s), but since the nuclear age began, we also haven’t elected anyone so heavy-handed. Reagan was perceived as resolute; Christie’s temper could give some pause when it comes to entrusting him with the nuclear codes or the ability to commit troops. Bullying could also offend political and trading counterparts, from the British and Japanese to the Chinese and Russians. Maybe his second term as governor will be different. Perhaps a guy who is apparently committed to the life change of getting his weight under control can do the same thing with the other function of his mouth.