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Chris Christie: More Like Nixon than Giuliani

Why the bridge scandal is so damaging

Paul J. Richards/ AFP

The assessments of Chris Christie’s 2016 presidential prospects have too often overstated ideology and understated personality. There’s been much said and written about whether the New Jersey governor is too much of a “Northeastern moderate” to be acceptable to Republican primary voters in the Tea Party era. But this, it seemed to me, missed the point about Christie. Yes, he said nice things about President Obama after Hurricane Sandy, accepted the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion and even dared to defend a Muslim he nominated to a judgeship against accusations that he would implement Shariah law. But on plenty other issues, he was further right than many realized. He is no Rudy Giuliani-style apostate on immigration and gun control, having waffled on the former and blocked several gun restrictions passed by the Democratic legislature. He has opposed higher taxes on the wealthy to close the state’s yawning budget gaps. He refused to set up an exchange under the ACA. He cut funding for Planned Parenthood.

More importantly, whatever deviations Christie has made from the party line would, it has long seemed to me, be overcome by his knack for tapping into the conservative id on a visceral level, in ways that Giuliani never could—indeed, in ways that many of the seemingly more conservative 2016 contenders are unable to do. The scorn with which Christie lashes into, say, teachers’ union members lights up an emotional response from many rank-and-file Republicans that no checklist of issue-by-issue orthodoxy ever could.

But if Christie’s rough-edged rhetoric was going to help him bond with west-of-the-Delaware-River conservatives, the flipside of his Jersey personality has also loomed all along as his biggest vulnerability. In the lingo of the consultants, there was a question of whether Christie was plausibly “presidential.” He was not only aspiring to be the first heavily overweight commander in chief since William Howard Taft. He was someone who had—to name just a few instances—hollered at a former Navy Seal who dared to question him at a town hall meeting; gotten in a confrontation on a Jersey Shore boardwalk; and had this to say, over the microphone, to a female heckler yelling something about jobs at a Mitt Romney rally in New Hampshire: “You know something may go down tonight, but it ain’t gonna be jobs, sweetheart.” Yes, he really said that.

This is why the release of e-mails showing, in highly colorful terms, his office’s direct involvement in the closure of two local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in September to punish the Fort Lee mayor, a Democrat, for not endorsing Christie is so damaging. Christie’s problem all along has not been that he would be seen as too Giuliani, but that he would be seen as too Nixon—a Republican whose curious ideological mix of moderation and conservatism is overshadowed by a toxic combination of insecurity and power-hungriness that leads to a politics of spite and retribution. Remember, Christie and his team were pulling all the stops last year to ring up Democratic endorsements and run up his vote tally in a re-election where his victory was never in doubt—just like a certain other chief executive's reelection 41 years earlier.

But neither re-election keeps people from being revolted at a guy who uses sleazy power-play tactics and has henchmen who throw around ethnic insults, as one of Christie's crew did about the "little Serbian" mayor of Fort Lee (who, it turns out, is actually Croatian). 

No, I don’t believe this is necessarily the end of Christie’s presidential hopes, as Jonathan Chait argues—I am constitutionally averse to making predictions pro or con prospects with two years to go until the Iowa caucuses. And I’d also caution against overstating the facts at hand here: Christie’s people did not “close the George Washington Bridge,” as some reports are now suggesting—they shifted two of Fort Lee’s three rush-hour access lanes to the main flow of Interstate 95 traffic, thus causing horrific backups in Fort Lee but easing the main flow onto the bridge from I-95. It was, in that regard, a devious surgical strike.

But, we now know, too devious for its own good. There is something going down today—and it’s Chris Christie’s standing in the field of 2016 contenders. 

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the Iowa caucuses are in three years. They are in two years.