Do you remember the town halls? Do you remember when he argued with a teacher in 2010? Do you remember how the videos became a sensation, and how Chris Christie, the federal prosecutor turned New Jersey governor became a star? Christie was fearless in shirtsleeves, shouting about pensions. “But I understand that for someone like you, it’s never enough,” he said to one woman. Nobody spoke like that in politics, especially not in Republican politics. At least not until Donald Trump came along.
“Christie May Be GOP's Best Hope,” pollster John Zogby declared in Forbes as Republicans were preparing to challenge President Barack Obama in the 2012 election. “Christie is a physically big man with a blunt, confrontational style,” Zogby wrote. Presumably, that’s what it would take to defeat the professor in the Oval Office.
But Christie was not the GOP’s best hope in 2012 or in 2016. He didn’t run in 2012, which was probably a mistake. Four years later he was no longer the loudest guy in the room. “I absolutely believe if Trump had not gotten into the race I think we would have won,” Christie told NJ Advance Media. As Ernest Hemingway once put it, isn’t it pretty to think so?
Christie’s downfall is a lesson for Trump on the limits of tough talk. What entertains in a town hall doesn’t play nearly as well on Capitol Hill. Infrastructure, immigration, entitlement reform—these won’t be solved with threats on Twitter. Christie’s supporters expected more. So do the Donald’s.
Whenever the Age of Trump does come to end, it is unlikely that the Republican Party will turn to Christie, or to anyone else like him to become the GOP’s flagbearer. Christie left the governor’s mansion at Drumthwacket earlier this week with a 14 percent approval rating. He has become as toxic as the state he once governed.
What did he do, exactly? Not much. Christie fell so in love with his image as a tough governor that he forgot to actually govern. He was so busy campaigning for president in 2015, that he spent 261 days that year either partially or totally out of state. He thought people loved his bluster, when all they wanted was for someone—Republican, Democrat, anyone—to govern them with a modicum of decency and common sense.
Christie, meanwhile, was fighting with Republicans. Mind you, he is a Republican, but that wasn’t because he was working with Democrats. He was fighting with them, too. It is fitting that Christie’s two terms in office will be remembered for Bridgegate, his infamous lane closure on the George Washington Bridge in 2013, an act of pure political vengeance against Mark Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee, who had refused to support him. Christie’s move left commuters stuck in traffic for hours during a four day period, according to The New York Times. His most memorable act as governor was an act of municipal constipation.
We like when our politicians campaign as sheriffs, forgetting that governing is not a duel but a duet. It is no accident that inveterate dealmaker Lyndon Johnson passed so much significant domestic legislation, or that Ronald Reagan governed for eight years without the Republicans ever controlling the House. What Reagan did have, however, was the friendship of House Speaker Tip O'Neill, a Democrat.
Compromise doesn’t make for great television. Fights are far more fun to watch (and write about). Trump’s base may enjoy the attacks on congressional Democrats and the media establishment. But outside that core, Americans expect him to get things done, to exercise that dealmaking prowess he talked about on the campaign trail. He’ll have to figure out whether he wants to throw punches or shake hands. Christie’s plight should make clear which is the better tactic.
Today, Christie’s town hall videos have a tragic quality to them. They’re as carefully choreographed as a Chekhov play—all to make Christie appear to be a hero, the champion of ordinary people who’ve had enough of politicians—and their sleazy backroom deals.
Christie squandered his stature by telling people off instead of telling the truth. Trump, too, has a vengeful streak, which has also gotten him into trouble. Wanting to punish FBI director James Comey for a perceived lack of loyalty, he managed to unleash a special counsel on his West Wing. Feuds with prominent Republicans—Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, to name the two most prominent—could imperil his legislative agenda. Trump’s well-known desire to be at the center of every news cycle routinely thrusts him into new feuds. But what wins ratings isn’t likely to win votes.
“I’ve been myself for eight years,” Christie told a journalist as he prepared to leave office. He made that seem like an accomplishment. But New Jerseyans wanted more than a triple helping of personality. Trump should take note.
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