Watch out, Chris Christie: It's a trap!

Matt K. Lewis
The Week
Christie may have to rein in his shouting ways.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is riding high this week. But politics is a fickle business, Americans have short memories, and every race is different.

On the latter point, as Sen. Marco Rubio (who was on top just a year ago) told CNN's Dana Bash, "I think we need to understand that some of these races don't apply to future races. Every race is different — it has a different set of factors — but I congratulate (Christie) on his win."

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Some will say this is a less-than-gracious congratulations. Maybe. But it's also true.

There is a danger in winning, inasmuch as it fosters hubris and often reinforces the wrong lessons. Ken Cuccinelli, for example, won a series of down-ballot elections despite being outspent and having a penchant for micro-managing. He always won — until he didn't.

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When we win, we have a tendency to think it's because we did everything right. In this regard, winning a landslide election can be especially dangerous. Losers may have to re-evaluate things — but not winners. For this reason, winning can ironically reinforce bad habits and make a candidate less likely to engage in introspection, or even be open to constructive criticism.

It must feel good to believe you've finally cracked the code. But this is a trap. As Cuccinelli just learned, what works in a state senate race may not work in a governor's race. And as Christie may soon learn, what works in a governor's race may not work on a presidential race (just ask Rick Perry).

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For Christie right now, the champagne is still flowing, and laudatory notes and calls and columns are still coming in. So if you're Chris Christie, you probably think a couple things are true. You think that through the shear force of your personality, you can make people like you. And you probably believe that you can get away with being confrontational. You might even think this is a selling point.

You think this because — so far — it's held true. So far, Christie's confrontational style has mostly come across as refreshing. (Perhaps we secretly enjoy getting to yell at people vicariously through him?)

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And in a primary contest where conservatives are looking for a fighter, this might actually help him. So many of us already conflate anger and passion with a conservative philosophy. Christie may also benefit from a style that is an obvious contrast to the cerebral and aloof Obama. On the other hand, as Jonathan Chait has noted, while attacking teachers or Obama might help in a primary, "It's another thing altogether if he gives this treatment to Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, Scott Walker, or other fellow partisans."

But let's just assume, for the sake of argument, that Christie makes it to the general election. Imagine a time after the press has turned on him (as they turned on John McCain and other Republican media darlings). What happens when MSNBC plays video of him yelling at someone for the millionth time, and after George Will or Charles Krauthammer writes the column about the danger of an angry man having his finger on the button? What happens when he tells a national political reporter that "it's none of your business"?

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How will that play in Peoria — under the intense glare of a presidential campaign?

Not everyone thinks this is a problem. "Christie's confrontational personality can appeal to all sorts of electorates so long as he trains his anger in the right places," writes Josh Barro, who believes the "right places" include New Jersey teachers, because "Christie's ire toward groups that demand ever-higher taxes and spending is popular with the electorate."

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But as Scott Galupo points out, other interest groups Christie might encounter on the presidential trail won't make for such easy marks:

Is Chris Christie going to yell at senior citizens about Medicare?

Is he going to yell at beneficiaries of food stamps?

Is he going to yell at families on Medicaid or CHIP?

Is he going to yell at farmers about agribusiness subsidies? [The American Conservative]

The problem isn't just that Christie's style won't always work on the presidential trail. It's that it might backfire ... horribly.

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It's understandable why his advisors might not want him to tinker with his natural demeanor. And you can imagine the "let Christie be Christie" headlines that would surely emerge where he to tone down his style and fall flat. But conservatives who have seen the media turn on Republicans once they become a viable threat to a Democrat like Hillary Clinton worry his behavior will gradually go from being portrayed as "colorful" or charming to erratic and dangerous.

"If Christie yells at a teacher at a town hall in Iowa, that teacher is going to get a lot of time on television afterwards — in a way that these people [who] get berated in New Jersey don't," says my liberal sparring partner Bill Scher.

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This is a good point. In recent years, we've seen "civilians" like Joe the Plumber and Sandra Fluke elevated to rock star status. One can easily imagine Christie telling some teacher in Davenport to 'Do your job!' But what happens when she goes on to become a cause célèbre? The media would then parade this "victim" around as an excuse to talk about Christie's "bullying" and Christie's "war on women."

If I were Hillary, I would set a trap. Just send female supporters in to every Christie coffee, rally, or speech in New Hampshire or Iowa — and have them confront him on camera. What would he do? How long before he snaps at one of them?

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You can watch Bill Scher and I discuss this on Bloggingheads below:

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