A combination of media outlets, from The New York Times to assorted Democratic attack institutions, are gearing up to dismantle the popular image of Chris Christie, who now finds himself with few allies on the right with whom to fight back heading into the midterms before 2016.
From his filmography of incidents yelling at people to the latest incident in which Democrats accuse Christie of shutting down a bridge for political retribution, the end of the year has not been kind to the New Jersey Governor. The Daily Beast‘s Lloyd Grove details this week the Governor’s public transformation from a popular, honest public official to “a politician who wreaks petty revenge and humiliation on any poor soul who is unwise enough to cross him.”
It began with the bridge incident. The New York Times published a scathing piece accusing Governor Christie of “pettiness” for potentially having the George Washington Bridge shut down to ruin traffic in tiny Fort Lee, NJ–a town whose mayor refused to endorse Christie. The word “bully” seems to continually appear in articles about Governor Christie, and you could probably graph the relationship between frequency of the use of the word “bully” in the mainstream media to Christie’s ascent at Hillary Clinton’s expense in the 2016 national polls.
That is not to say that Christie has not actively pursued a “tough-talking” image that has the potential of coming off very negatively in some parts of the country. Even supporters like former RNC Chairman Michael Steele admit that Christie’s negative image is aided in part by the candidate, even if he is, in private, still “the same breath of fresh air” he was before ascending to the governorship. Steele attributes the backlash to the fateful hug with President Obama during Hurricane Sandy that caused Democrats to exclaim (in Steele’s words), “How saucy, how sexy, how wonderful for politics!”
The attacks result from a logic that is not entirely without merit on the part of the left: yes, to New Jerseyans, it is not news that Governor Christie is abrasive, that he yells, that he often comes off as a “bully,” even at public events. But in New Jersey, that spectacle sells. Christie’s current state approval ratings are at 65%, according to the latest Asbury Park Press Poll. He got there, in large part, through yelling at people: yelling at teachers, at passersby on a Jersey Shore boardwalk, at assorted hecklers, and at “idiots.” For anyone watching, there is, undoubtedly, high entertainment value to be had from Christie’s outbursts, but in New Jersey, such behavior acquires a particular cultural resonance. It inspires voters to believe that Christie is genuine, that he behaves just like they would in any given situation. In New Jersey, boldness and curtness are rewarded, and saccharine niceness given a side eye.
Democrats who fear Christie’s charisma might carry over onto the national stage are currently trying to reframe the attitude toward his personality. On a national scale, he is no longer a tough guy telling it like it is, but a bully drunk with power, shamelessly–to use a controversial phrase from Jon Corzine’s campaign–“throwing his weight around.” Those selfless workers trying to teach our children are left “shaking” after encounters with him; Christie himself is a “cannibalizer.”
The attempts to label Christie a “bully” are nothing short of an elaborate ploy for the national women vote. Many of the teachers and assorted constituents he yells at are women, and these videos seem to resonate with the crowd that disdains Christie more than many others. Democrats are hoping that the image of a large, portly man berating an elementary school teacher simply doesn’t sit well with women in the Midwest or general suburban areas. They are hoping that Christie launches the personality that won him the election in New Jersey onto a national platform–in a debate against Hillary Clinton. This would give her an enormous opening to decry the sexism inherent in her running for office, with video of a man yelling at her, which every attack ad will deem sexist, even though voters should know by now that Christie talks that way to everybody.
Christie has proven himself politically astute–sufficiently astute enough to use his time and ability before 2016 to readjust the way he handles constituents. His RNC speech last year leaves little doubt that he will present himself as a tireless pit bull at the service of the people, but whether he will bring that ferocity to a stage where it can backfire rapidly on him is a question for another year. For now, Christie–a recent veteran of a campaign against a woman openly decrying the “old boys’ club” of Trenton–has a whole new year full of people to yell at ahead of him, and opportunities abound for him to rehabilitate his national image from the current slump.