Like Bill Clinton, Chris Christie is not afraid to show his unvarnished side. It is probably the reason that both of them score well on the classic polling question of whether they “understood the problems of people like you.” The Governor relishes in projecting a “take me as I am or leave me New Jersey-style.”
On some occasions the governor has set the bar high for him and the rest of us New Jerseyans and has shown a gentler side. When he talked about his initiative for mandatory drug treatment for non-violent, drug-addicted offenders, his remarks sent a clear message that no life is disposable. “I believe that this [his expanded drug court initiative] will be, if we do it the right way, one of the lasting legacies of this administration. Budgets come and go. Taxes go up and down. But saving lives … that lasts forever.” The governor’s words were truly awe inspiring.
However, these moments have been the exception rather than the rule. There have been too many occasions when he has shown an inability to modulate his rhetoric, control his temper and refrain from insulting name calling i.e., labeling those he disagreed with as “stupid” or “an idiot” or “as entitled moneygrubbers who considered themselves above the law.”
In "The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008," Mark Halpern and John F. Harris wrote the following about Bill Clinton, “It was only once Clinton arrived in office that he and his advisers realized after many stumbles, that people do not actually want a president who is that much like them. Even an egalitarian culture prefers to assign a special status to a president. And from this a Trade Secret flows. Do not ever squander the dignity of the presidency.” Halpern and Harris add that, “If a candidate engages in acts unbecoming the office being sought, it can have a palpable impact on voters’ perception of that person’s fitness for the job…. In Clinton’s case, self-restrain did not come naturally to his ebullient, in-the moment personality.”
Bill Clinton was the ultimate “comeback kid” who could bounce-back from all sorts of gaffes. There was only one Bill Clinton, who could diffuse Don Imus’ use of the “Bubba” by retorting “It’s an honorable term where I come from. It’s just Southern for mench.” Governor Christie is no Bill Clinton.
Governor Christie has lost his cool on too many times and instead of doing a mea culpa like Bill Clinton, he has frequently compounded his initial misstep, as when he labeled Bill Brown, a law student, “an idiot” for repeatedly interrupting him when he tried to answer his question regarding his plan to merge Rutgers and Rowan. Instead of admitting his mistake, Gov. Christie “doubled down” and called Brown, a former Navy SEAL, a “jerk.” The governor told the crowd that he tried to be patient, but finally felt, “Damn, man, I’m the governor. Could you shut up for a second?” With his impatient outburst he forgot that a governor needs to set high standards with regard to appropriate language and behavior and show respect for the office he holds.
Governor Christie acknowledged his unique style when he recites the “rules” at his town-meeting style events. “If they want to take the governor out for a walk” he’ll give it back to them “because we’re all from New Jersey.” There is a way for the Governor to give it back without resorting to name calling and immature remarks.
The Governor’s bluntness has served him well for much of his term, but it is beginning to wear a little thin and if the New Jersey economy does not dramatically turn around, he could face a serious Democratic challenge in 2013. At this juncture, the highly ballyhooed “Jersey comeback” has not materialized.
New Jersey’s jobless rate is the fifth-highest in the country and is only one of six states whose economy didn’t grow last years (47th in the country). Further, our bond rating has fallen to 48th in the nation and S&P has issued a warning based on our budget situation, which they described as “structurally unbalanced” because 2012 revenue collections continue to fall dramatically short of the administration’s own projections.
By the time 2013 rolls around, the Christie “New Jersey Comeback” could eclipse the Dukakis “Massachusetts Comeback” as the most substance-less economic hype in modern history. If that happens, New Jersey voters could focus on the approach the Governor employed to balance the budget i.e., borrowing, shifting or neglecting to pay funds for transportation, affordable housing, mortgage foreclosure relief, clean-energy programs and pension payments. They also might realize that the promised property tax reductions never materialized in spite of dramatic cuts in public-sector jobs (the rate would have been 8.3 percent instead of 9 percent had these reductions not been made).
Nevertheless, Governor Christie will be a very formidable candidate if he decides to run for re-election because he is smart, articulate and on occasion, downright inspirational. His Achilles heel is that he is too frequently downright disagreeable.
Irwin Stoolmacher is president of the Stoolmacher Consulting Group.