How the media created Chris Christie

He never was a scandal-free moderate, but mainstream pundits had to invent one to ignore unrelenting GOP extremism

Published January 13, 2014 5:38PM (EST)

Chris Christie celebrates his election victory in Asbury Park, N.J., Nov. 5, 2013.                  (AP/Mel Evans)
Chris Christie celebrates his election victory in Asbury Park, N.J., Nov. 5, 2013. (AP/Mel Evans)

Poor Chris Christie: It gets worse. If you don’t pay close attention to politics, it’s got to be stunning how quickly he’s gone from the great “moderate” presidential hope of the mainstream media and Republican establishment to embarrassingly sloppy, power-mad and quite possibly corrupt governor. Let me explain.

But first, let me recap the latest in Christie scandal news. In the last day alone: CNN reported a federal probe into why Christie spent $4.5 million of Hurricane Sandy aid on what was essentially a political ad for himself (instead of just over $2 million on a New Jersey tourism ad that didn’t feature Christie and his family). MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki identified what looks like the real impetus for the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal: a huge real estate development. That was almost inevitable: All politics is about real estate.

New email and text message evidence emerged that Christie lied last Thursday when he said bridge official David Samson had nothing to do with the lane closures.  Oh, and I love this one, from Friday: Christie’s old baseball coach seemed to refute his pettiest and most predictably refuted Thursday lie, that he wasn’t friends, wasn’t even acquaintances, with key bridge scandal player David Wildstein: He and Wildstein were both on Livingston High’s baseball team, according to their old coach.

Now, Wildstein was the team’s nerdy stat guy while Christie was a player, but given other evidence that links them, the coach’s story makes Christie’s Thursday claim that he wasn’t even acquaintances with Wildstein in high school look extra petty and vindictive and, well, just plain mean.

But nerdy stat guys tend to like data and documents and have long memories. Wildstein displays evidence of all three traits, as proven by the 2,000 pages of documents he’s already dropped relating to the bridge scandal. So, as I’ve already written, twice, Christie’s 2016 hopes are dead, and his governorship is in real jeopardy.

Still, as the bridge scandal unfolds, and brings with it renewed media reporting on all sorts of old Christie troubles, from his playing ugly politics with state Supreme Court nominees (Rachel Maddow’s novel theory for raining punishment on Fort Lee) to the lingering controversy over his use of Sandy aid (and it’s not only about commercials), it’s hard not to be shocked anew that Christie was ever considered a leading presidential candidate. It’s also shocking that he coasted to reelection just two months ago, crushing state Sen. Barbara Buono – but the two phenomena are connected. Christie’s strong national reputation convinced local and national Democrats and even liberal media figures to either ignore the New Jersey race or, in some cases, back Christie.

My colleagues Alex Pareene and Blake Zeff do a great job explaining some of Christie’s outsize media appeal. As Zeff notes, though Christie is a hard-line conservative, not a moderate, he took a page from other blue state Republicans, most notably Rudy Giuliani, and picked a couple of issues on which to break with his party and/or buck extremists – for Giuliani, it was abortion and to some extent gay rights (or at least abstaining from homophobia); for Christie, it was abstaining from Islamaphobia and then, of course, seeking Hurricane Sandy aid, for which he literally and figuratively embraced President Obama.

It didn’t hurt that both men are larger than life bullies, because for odd reasons, media folks seem to like bullies and mean guys, as long as they’re mean to the right people.  As Pareene points out, the central fetish of the mainstream pundit class has been fiscal austerity and rolling back the welfare state. So as long as Christie hummed Bruce Springsteen songs while sticking it to the union workers and struggling folks Springsteen sings about, he was a Beltway hero.

I think there’s something else at work, something psychological, maybe, and harder to get at. I think the mainstream media and its dominant pundits are unable to take in exactly how far to the right the Republican Party has swung in the last decade, and so they need to invent “moderates” to keep from writing over and over about the party’s departure from political sanity. And when their moderates either show themselves as extremists, as Christie has repeatedly, or else as severely flawed politicians, as Christie has lately, those pundits either ignore it or rush to rescue them over and over.

Mark Halperin is, as always, a good example. Now, to be fair to Halperin, the biggest news he and John Heilemann broke in their "Game Change" sequel had to do with the Romney team’s misgivings about Christie as a running mate in 2012. They weren’t just about his temperament, as in Christie’s self-promoting loose cannon, though there was some of that. They were ethical, going back to investigations he endured into abuse of power as well as overspending back when he was U.S. attorney. It was fascinating reading.

Yet Halperin immediately praised Christie’s Thursday press conference, otherwise known as his two-hour pity party, as a “virtuoso” performance. And on Sunday Halperin Tweeted:

Sadly for Barbara Buono, the Halperin-Heilemann book came out the day of her landslide loss to Christie. It belatedly opened the door for the national media to reexamine Christie’s ethics problems; then came the bridge scandal. Looking back, I think even I was taken in by Christie’s Hurricane Sandy performance and the perceived inevitability of his reelection.  I didn’t write one word about Buono’s campaign, though I may have said one or two nice things on MSNBC.

I saw Buono at an MSNBC studio last week, and I apologized to her for not doing my job – for assuming Christie was a shoo-in and mostly ignoring the New Jersey gubernatorial election, paying attention to closer races. I hope a lot of Democrats are doing the same. Mostly, though, I hope the media can learn a lesson from its Christie fever, but that’s even less likely.

By Joan Walsh