As a general rule, it’s a bad idea for politicians to get into shouting confrontations with average people. The reason for this is simple: people tend to say stupid things when they’re angry and arguing.
Remember how everyone spent the entire 2012 election cycle laughing at Mitt Romney for saying “corporations are people, my friend”? That happened because Romney got into a drawn-out exchange with a heckler in Iowa. The politicians who recognize the danger in being dragged into a rhetorical mud fight have figured out strategies for neutralizing their harassers. One of the best heckler defusers out there is Sen. Ted Cruz, who is an expert at using friendly crowds to gang up on and drown out people who interrupt his speeches.
The giant exception to this rule is Gov. Chris Christie. He’s made himself into a figure of national prominence by engaging in frequent and prolonged screaming matches with teachers, union members, protesters, reporters, Democrats in the state legislature – anyone who could possibly be a good foil – and then posting video clips of the confrontations to YouTube. It was a mixture of Christie’s inherent pugnacity and carefully staged performance art, and it worked. He was able to successfully leverage the “Jersey” stereotype of the take-no-shit tough guy and build himself a national brand out of it.
Pundits absolutely ate it up. For talking heads who were frustrated by political leaders like Barack Obama who are “cool” and “professorial” (read: not entertaining), Christie’s bombast proved very appealing. Others, like Brit Hume, admired Christie for his hypermasculine refusal to be neutered by the feminist PC police. Either way, the pundit world became one of Christie’s most important audiences, and they were eager to help promote him.
This was particularly true of the easily seduced power worshippers who populate MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” They happily prostrated themselves to the Christie legend and were in constant awe of his propensity to shout at people. “There is like testosterone coming out of every pore in his body. I can’t wait to see in Iowa or New Hampshire, some tea party type calling him a liberal, and Christie reaching down the guy’s throat and pulling his lungs out,” Charlie Cook said on “Morning Joe” after Christie’s reelection, to hoots and howls of laughter from everyone else on the panel.
But as Christie’s reputation has been tainted by scandal and manifold investigations and worsening popularity in his home state, the pundit love affair with Christie’s bullying bravado isn’t what it once was. Earlier this week, Christie got into confrontation with a local activist who heckled him at an event commemorating the second anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. The heckler wanted to know why Christie was sitting on federal relief funds meant to get hurricane victims back into their homes, and Christie laid into him.
All the elements of Christie’s “please watch me yell at a person” strategy were there. He warned the guy (and telegraphed to the audience) that a Classic Christie Confrontation was about to happen: “You all know me, so if we’re going to get into a debate here today, it’s going to get very interesting and very fun.” He belittled his opponent, ironically, as someone showing off for the cameras. And he served up a brutal, easily quoted coup-de-grace: “So listen, you want to have the conversation later, I’m happy to have it, buddy. But until that time, sit down and shut up.”
The Morning Joe crew, usually reliable in their sycophantic awe of Christie's verbal displays of masculine dominance, weren’t impressed:
The Washington Post picked up on the criticism of Christie as a “bully” and pegged it as the biggest threat to his image headed into 2016 – ironic, given that bullying is was got him on the national radar to begin with.
This sort of coverage is toxic for Christie. He’s trying mightily to put the scandals and investigations behind him and slap together a “Christie comeback” narrative as the presidential election cycle kicks into gear, even as his poll numbers tank and New Jersey’s economy limps along. He needs the media to help nurture that along. If the pundits turn on him and start treating him as an abusive bully, then he’ll have lost one of his chief constituencies.
Of course, none of this is meant to suggest that Christie has lost all the pundits. He still has fans, like Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, who decided long ago that Chris Christie was her pony for 2016. Since the Bridgegate scandal exploded and derailed the governor’s political ambitions, Christie has, according to Rubin, turned the page, moved on, had a comeback, had another comeback, and rebounded. Even she, though, acknowledges that Christie’s “candor” is a “blessing and a curse.”