Move over Rand and Ted and Hillary and Joe. Chris Christie is bellying up to the bar. That’s right; the Jersey bully, the ego with a snarl, has unofficially thrown his hat into the ring for 2016.
It may not impress you and me, but it sure as hell impresses the national media, who have already given Mr. Pugnacity the Republican nomination for president and a leg up on winning the White House. Call it the politics of style, a hardy perennial in American electioneering. It worked for Ronald Reagan, and the fat man with the attitude thinks it will work for him. Clearly, the smart guys who tout our elections agree.
Others had style. JFK had it, but in his case there was something behind the surface image. Reagan, on the other hand, was an empty suit, and once you get past the bravado, so is Christie.
There are superficial similarities between Reagan, the GOP’s last hero, and Christie. The Gipper benefitted from a certain Teflon coating; nothing bad about his administration seemed to stick to him, a function of his being blessed with the likability gene. Very little sticks to Christie either; New Jersey voters like him even when they vehemently disagree with his policies, the governor’s rejection of his state’s popular, referendum-driven minimum-wage increase being a prime example. His East Coast ethnic everyman successfully mirrors New Jerseyites’ image of themselves.
The sources of Reagan’s and Christie’s respective likability differ, of course. In a more optimistic time (“morning in America”), Reagan’s personal charm and sunny disposition cancelled out the harsh negatives of his right-wing political philosophy. But Americans today are not optimistic, and Christie is neither charming nor sunny.
Fortunately for him, voters (in the Republican party, at least) don’t want charming; they want nasty, and Christie’s in-your-face belligerence, along with his personal belittling of opponents, plays well as popular theater. For many Americans, particularly on the right, the times demand a tough guy willing to demean and insult those selected as scapegoats for our troubles — teachers, union members, Washington bureaucrats. Can a 1950s-style attack on “egghead” intellectuals be far behind?
At the same time, Christie has tapped into another yearning on the part of the electorate: bipartisanship. His hyped-up “spirit of Sandy,” which has not yet made whole the actual victims of Sandy, is a clever spin on what was a priceless gift to the governor. The highly publicized hug with President Obama, accompanied by pledges of cooperation, dazzled New Jerseyites (and others) attracted to the philosophical approach expressed by Rodney King: “Can’t we all just get along?”
There is a notion in the air that the only successful politics is bipartisan politics, that all great American accomplishments in the public sphere have been bipartisan accomplishments. Some pundits have held up our social-insurance system as a case in point. Only because Democrats and Republicans agreed, they infer, do we even have Social Security and Medicare.
A history lesson is in order here. Social Security, enacted in 1935, was passed by a House and Senate that were three-to-one Democratic and signed by a Democratic president. Medicare, enacted in 1965, was passed by a House and Senate that were two-to-one Democratic and signed by a Democratic president. In both cases, Democrats held, respectively, 69 and 68 filibuster-proof seats in the upper chamber. Regardless, in each instance, the GOP fought last-ditch, rear-guard actions against both of these historic and popular pieces of legislation, in committee and on the floor, acquiescing only when passage became inevitable.
In any case, there remains the question of how really moderate and bipartisan Chris Christie is anyway. To hear his prospective opponents for the GOP nomination on the tea-party and social-conservative fringe tell it, he’s essentially a RINO (Republican in name only). Only Rand Paul, among Republican 2016 contenders, has openly questioned Christie’s rightist credentials, but right-wing media celebrities who define the boundaries of modern conservatism, such as Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge and Ann Coulter, as well as the ubiquitous Newt Gingrich, have dismissed him as not being one of their own.
The Christie record tends to suggest otherwise — up to a point. Obviously, the governor is not a tea-party purist; he couldn’t have been elected in light-blue New Jersey had he been. Christie accepts Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, a sin to tea partiers. In addition, his record on gun control is mixed — token enforcement of existing restrictions, but no new initiatives — and on abortion, he declines to strenuously impose his pro-life beliefs.
That’s the good (read: moderate and bipartisan) Christie. Here’s the bad: He opposes state income taxes, especially on the rich and on business interests; he favors ruthless cuts in public spending and has already savaged the pension plans and benefits of state workers; he’s against gay marriage and, as mentioned, resisted legislative attempts to raise New Jersey’s minimum wage; he’s an enthusiast of charter schools, merit pay for teachers, and tax credits for parents sending children to private or religious schools; he supports reduced aid for public education and laid off hundreds of teachers to reduce his state budget; he wants to gut the Garden State’s department of environmental protection on the grounds its regulations are “killing business.”
Most notoriously, in 2010, Christie rejected for ideological reasons the proposed joint federal-state Hudson River train tunnel, a stimulus infrastructure project that would have created innumerable jobs. In a nutshell, this “moderate,” who earlier in his career was a lobbyist for the securities, gas and electric, and for-profit education industries, is a down-the-line, anti-government corporate conservative when it comes to economic issues. If the tea party distrusts him, Wall Street loves him.
Average citizens, for their part, should be afraid — very afraid. Christie’s New Jersey has the region’s highest unemployment rate at 8.4% and its highest level of poverty in half a century. Yet, a third of registered Democrats and half the state’s union members voted to give him a second term, backed by 51 elected Democratic officials whom their party’s gubernatorial candidate rightly condemned as traitors to the rank and file.
What’s it all mean? Simply this: Style is threatening once more to triumph over substance. Progressives should beware the elephant in the room.
Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He is the author of two prizewinning books.
From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2014
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