Despite being an utterly conventional product of the state’s legendarily corrupt political machine in nearly every way, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has spent much of his time in Drumthwacket enjoying and cultivating a reputation for fearless authenticity. And as is the case with almost every top-tier politician, the persona the likely future presidential candidate and the media had crafted — that of the straight-shooting tough guy who has in abundance the macho confidence his effete, poll-obsessed colleagues lack — was a myth. In his case, especially so.
New Jerseyans themselves, who know Christie better than anyone (besides folks on the Upper East Side), have begun to internalize this lesson, and have spent much of the past year rapidly downgrading their estimation of the man. But after he made national headlines this weekend with his reckless, cynical and willfully theatrical response to the global Ebola outbreak, there should be plenty of people outside of the Garden State who finally see the Christie-as-brave-truth-teller narrative for the bullshit it is.
To recap for those of you smart enough to avoid any and all politics news during your two meager days off: The Christie theatrics in question revolved around Kaci Hickox, a Maine nurse who, upon landing in New Jersey after working to save lives in West Africa, was forced to be “quarantined” in a tent for three days, against her will and despite showing no symptoms. This was done with Christie’s approval, and it was only after a barrage of criticism from health experts, the White House and Hickox herself that Christie, following his pal Andrew Cuomo’s lead, decided he’d let Hickox leave her makeshift prison and return home — but only if she did so under state supervision.
Now, if that were the whole story, it’d still be pretty bad. As Vox’s top-notch health reporter Sarah Kliff and others have noted, treating healthcare workers who selflessly volunteer to go to West Africa — where, unlike in the U.S., Ebola truly is a major crisis — as if they carried with them the Bubonic plague is not only unethical but also stupid. While there’s no doubt that reasonable precautions must be taken to minimize as much as possible the risk of Ebola’s spreading, one of the important ways the problem is going to be solved is by encouraging talented medical practitioners, like Hickox, to do their best to help. It’s already the rare individual who wants to travel thousands of miles to confront a lethal threat; the number who’d be willing to do all that and be treated as a leper once they return home is probably close to zero.
On the merits, then, Christie’s actions were ignorant and counterproductive. But what makes the governor’s behavior even more despicable is the way Christie’s response to his critics revealed that, for him, the relevant criteria have precious little to do with public health. In a circumstance like this, during which the public’s degree of knowledge about a threat is paltry when compared to its capacity to freak out, a politician interested in displaying real leadership — the one attribute the very serious among us have decided is most vital, and one Christie has implicitly claimed for himself on multiple occasions — would work to educate the people and maintain calm and order. Perhaps mindful of the way that this undramatic style will lead to vapid, narcissistic criticism from a press corps hungry for a flashy headline, the ever media savvy Christie has decided to go in the opposite direction.
“My first and foremost obligation is to protect the public health and safety of the people of New Jersey,” Christie said, defending his grandstanding and obscuring the fact that his actions were contrary to those recommended by experts in the field of public health. “So I’m sorry if in any way [Hickox] was inconvenienced, but the inconvenience that could occur from having folks who are symptomatic and ill out and amongst the public is a much, much greater concern of mine.” As if to make sure everyone could hear the subtext of these remarks — that Hickox was somehow acting fecklessly, despite the fact that she followed normal procedure and determined she was not an Ebola carrier — Christie added, citing no evidence whatsoever, that Hickox was “obviously ill.”
To her credit, Hickox fired back and reminded CNN viewers that Christie is not a doctor, had “never laid eyes on her,” and that she’d been asymptomatic since she arrived back in the States. And if Christie were taking his job as governor seriously, you’d figure her comments might make a dent. But as has been obvious since at least year two of his first term, Chris Christie’s overriding priority has little to do with running New Jersey and everything to do with getting himself elected as president of the United States. Keenly aware, as he no doubt is, that this will be a tall order so long as the GOP’s Tea Party base holds him in contempt, Christie is treating the Ebola, which the GOP base fears disproportionately, as an excuse to differentiate himself from someone Tea Partyers hate even more: President Obama, whose response to Ebola hysteria has, from the start, been a model of responsibility.
By that standard, Christie’s been an overwhelming success. The national discourse on Ebola is dumber, more hysterical and more politicized today than it was just 72 hours ago; and it’s primarily Christie (with an assist from the aforementioned Cuomo) whom the Tea Party should thank, and the rest of us should blame. In the pursuit of winning over a chunk of voters he’ll need to accrue further power, Gov. Christie has stoked irrational fear, demonized a member of a politically unpopular group (Ebola-fighting doctors and nurses) and added heft to some of the most rabid conspiracy theories of a Democratic president lying about a lethal threat for short-term electoral gain. This supposedly brave speaker of truth is reaching out to some of the worst forces in American politics, and he’s telling them malicious nonsense. Why? Because he knows that’s exactly what they want to hear.