New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is officially running for president. He announced his campaign this morning in his old high school gymnasium, following approximately 15 months of on-again-off-again political “comebacks” in the aftermath of the George Washington Bridge scandal. All those Christie Comebacks failed to actually revive Christie’s badly damaged political brand, but he’s charging ahead anyway. And according to his own people, Christie’s campaign will be about one thing: the myth of Chris Christie.
According to the New York Times:
At his announcement, Mr. Christie will seek a political rebirth, as he has before, by relying on his powers as a teller, and mythologizer, of his own story.
Using notes and a hand-held microphone, advisers say, he will invoke his grandmother’s arduous commute to work at the Internal Revenue Service, which required two bus rides, as he tries to relate to middle-class voters. He will depict his governorship as a noble battle to take on intractable problems and daunting crises. And he will cast himself as the rare politician willing to deliver unpleasant truths about the excesses of American life and the sacrifices required to rein them in. (His campaign slogan: “Telling it like it is.”)
This message appeals to what has been Christie’s most enduring constituency up to this point: dull-witted pundits who believe that every political fight and policy snarl can be overcome by “leadership.” They see Christie bark insults and schoolteachers and tell hecklers to “sit down and shut up,” and they confuse that theatrical excess with political competence. “Telling it like it is” is little different from the “Straight Talk Express” nonsense that John McCain charmed the political press corps with during his own presidential campaigns. But there are several reasons to suspect that Christie won’t achieve the same level of success that McCain did.
First off, running on his own tough-guy, no-nonsense personality is pretty much the only option available Christie, given that his policy record has left him wildly unpopular in his own state. In his announcement speech this morning, Christie promised to campaign “without spin or pandering” and immediately broke that promise as he danced carefully around the fact that the New Jersey economy is beset by high unemployment and slow growth. Over the past few months, his approval rating has skidded to a series of all-time lows. Christie is facing the same problem as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal: his ambition extends far beyond his accomplishments, and so he’s reframing his unpopular and ineffective policies as “hard choices” that he had the “courage” to pursue.
That gets to another problem: the 2016 campaign is already stuffed with candidates who embody the “principled truth-teller” persona. Candidates like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul present themselves as unflinchingly honest men who will publicly break with their party (or join with the opposition) when their beliefs demand it. Ben Carson’s campaign is based entirely around his oft-stated refusal to be “politically correct” and to say things that everyone else is supposedly afraid to. Really there’s nothing unique or special about a candidate who promises to be the One Honest Man on the campaign trail, but with so many candidates pitching that message, Christie will have to make the case that he can be trusted over everyone else.
And that brings us to Christie’s final problem: there’s literally no reason to trust anything Chris Christie says. Tom Moran, the editorial page editor of the New Jersey Star-Ledger, greeted the Christie 2016 candidacy with a brutal column dissecting the governor’s distasteful habit of earnestly giving you his word, and then enthusiastically breaking his promise. It’s not just Christie lies, he writes, it’s the lengths that he goes to in trying to convince you that he’s not lying. There are a wealth of examples to cite demonstrating this character flaw, but my favorite is immigration.
Christie, in the early days of his governorship, was relatively liberal on immigration issues – he bullishly endorsed a path to citizenship and signed a state-level version of the DREAM Act into law. Then his party soured on immigration reform and Christie, when asked to comment on immigration, would dodge the issue entirely and refuse to say anything because “I’m not a candidate for president.” A few months later he announced that he’d changed his mind and no longer backed citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Look out, America: you’ve been told like it is.
Wafting through all of this is the unmistakable scent of desperation. Christie clearly believes he can recapture the political magic that propelled him to the top of everyone’s 2016 list before the George Washington Bridge scandal tore apart his reputation for forthrightness and turned his tough-guy persona into a toxic liability. He so badly wants to be president but won’t allow that he missed his moment. And so Christie’s promising to tell us like it is as he busily deludes himself.