Walker v. Christie, in Books

I’m spending a bit of time poring through two books, each about two likely Republican presidential contenders in 2016: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge, and Chris Christie: The Inside Story of His Rise to Power, Bob Ingle and Michael Symons’s joint work about the New Jersey governor. I’m switching off between them, jumping around in each for now.

My first impression: I don’t like the premise of either of these books. And maybe I don’t like the style of most American political biography in general. We don’t need to begin with a politician’s childhood or family to understand them. A political persona is as much a product of choice and necessity as of nature or nurture. Few of these people are interesting as people, Barack Obama being an exception (and not in a good way).

What makes Walker interesting is his willingness to take on the entrenched power of the public sector unions in the state that pioneered public sector unions. The story of how he launched that effort, and ultimately prevailed, provides a window into his style of decision-making. He is clear-headed, methodical, and calm. He does not try to prevail through personality, but through careful thought and planning.

That is an excellent quality in a governor, and perhaps even in a president. But does it rise to the level of presidential leadership, where personality and symbolism count? Take the title of the book itself. The word “unintimidated” is a passive adjective with a Latin root and a negative prefix. It’s not a strong word, has no vision or action of its own. Walker triumphs by refusing to give up. But where does he want to lead us?

Christie has an interesting persona, which is different than saying he’s an interesting person. Until recently, he was strikingly uninteresting. He parlayed his efforts as a fundraiser for George W. Bush into a political appointment as the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, despite having no relevant experience in criminal law. In office, he went after corrupt officials in the flashiest way possible, setting up his future political ambitions.

Not exactly log-cabin stuff, and he defeated incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine with a campaign rather short on ideas, taking advantage of Corzine’s poor record and his even worse campaigning. As governor, Christie has been moderately successful, forging pension reform together with the state’s Democratic leaders, taking on the state’s entrenched union interests. New Jersey’s rough economy, however, remains stuck in neutral.

Ingle and Symons clearly admire Christie but do not shy away from discussing his weaknesses and failures, including a scandal when he took a state helicopter to his son’s baseball game and then left again midway through to meet Iowa fundraisers. Christie is known for his performance during Hurricane Sandy–but Ingle and Symons remind readers that he was essentially delinquent during the great snowstorm of 2010.

If the question about Walker is whether he has the persona to lead the nation, the question about Christie is whether there’s more to him than his persona. Where Walker is self-effacing, Christie is all ego. His most irritating trait is his tendency to contradict himself and then behave as if anyone who still holds his former opinion is not only wrong, but evil. In spite of that, I can’t help but like the guy. Which is just a little scary.