Chris Christie returned to his hometown of Livingston, New Jersey, this past week to make an announcement that many saw coming despite his recent troubles. In the gymnasium of his former high school—scene of Christie’s youthful glory days as president of his class three years running and captain of the baseball team—he took the stage to throw his hat in the ring and join an almost absurdly crowded field of Republican presidential hopefuls vying for the 2016 nomination.
In his admittedly rousing speech, he flayed not only President Obama and his “second mate” Hillary Clinton (yawn) and presumptive opponents like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, but the government at large for its utter lack of ability to compromise and get things done. It was stirring stuff, but no one’s ever criticized Christie’s skills as an orator. Will his inarguable charisma be enough to get him back in the good graces of the American people in time to make a serious bid for the White House?
Governor Christie of New Jersey rose to fame as a brazenly incautious politician. He was the “straight talker,” defined by his blistering rants, searing insults, and perennial public feuds—all of which he labels as “harmless theatrics.”
But Christie’s meanness may be what does him in before the 2016 presidential election, something he spent much of 2014 and 2015 to date getting ready to throw his weight into. Bridgegate, the New Jersey lane-closing scandal rooted in a ruthless act of political retribution, promises to be a visible narrative of the belligerence he’s so known for and which can as easily work against him as it does for him. In early May 2015, two of Christie’s most loyal and trusted lieutenants were indicted. Brigid Harrison, a professor at Montclair State University, says it’s probably the death knell for Christie’s national aspirations. “Even if he is not directly connected to the indictments,” she noted, “he is guilty of creating a political culture in which corruption was allowed to flourish.” In other words, the polar opposite of what he vowed to accomplish with all of his “straight talk.”
There’s backlash too for Christie throwing his trusting staff under a bus in the wake of the scandal, as Christie and his minions are infamous for punishing any who cross him. When times get rough and you need friends, that kind of turncoat behavior makes others nervous. “Exoneration of the man is not exoneration of his leadership style,” commented The New York Times in the wake of the indictments.
During his meteoric rise, as he won hearts and minds during a series of town hall style meetings throughout New Jersey, Christie was the envy of the Republican Party for his savvy branding as a tough-talking but likeable, relatable guy with heaps of New Jersey swagger. His popularity was such that certain Republican insiders are rumored to have begged him to run instead of Romney in 2012. But in a post-Bridgegate world, Christie’s path to the presidential nomination is buried in the underbrush.
As it stands, a mind-blowing fifty-five percent of Republicans polled couldn’t imagine voting for Christie. In fact, the only Republican candidate less popular at the moment is America’s favorite bloviating buffoon, Donald Trump. And even The Donald was told “you’re fired” by NBC, his syndicating partner for beauty pageants and The Apprentice. Might it be more than a coincidence that the two loudmouths with the lowest polls going into the Republican nomination process have a worldview that the best way to influence others is to bully them?
Americans have historically shown considerable forgiveness for personal scandals (there was a little kerfuffle with the now-beloved Bill Clinton, if you’ll recall). But the public sees Bridgegate not merely as Chris Christie’s scandal but as a singular case of public betrayal, an event notable for its bullying quality and indifference to the thousands of people who were impacted by it. Extraordinary rhetorical skill notwithstanding, meanness is what threatens to take Christie down.