The scandal swirling around New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is already having one discernable, major impact: it has caused him to mute his larger-than-life style, which critics have long characterized as “bullying.” The in-your-face confrontations with rude or angry constituents are a thing of the past (for now) and the famous Christie swagger is reportedly gone.
While no one is yet comparing him to a CSPAN call in show host, there is a change in Christie that’s being picked up by reporters and pundits. And they’re also picking up a change in his constituents: they seem to be dealing with a leader who is perceived as off his pedestal and who’s seen as more on their level now or perhaps easier to disdain. None of this bodes well for his 2016 prospects — if he indeed still has aspirations — because it’s stripped Christie of some of what made him that unique political talent named Chris Christie.
The New York Time’s Maureen Dowd captures some of the shift, in a column pegged to the Governor’s recent town hall:
There’s nothing more amusing than a bully forced to be on his best behavior.
Chris Christie may be cutting back on his butter, but it wouldn’t melt in his mouth at a town hall here Thursday….
The New Jersey governor, depicted in The New Republic as Tony Soprano in his underwear getting his paper from the driveway, toned down his tough-guy Jersey act.
The fist-pumping and finger-jabbing were gone at his 110th town hall. As were the swagger, flashes of temper and glossy self-promotional videos. The chastened governor didn’t call anyone a “jerk,” an “idiot” or “stupid.” He even let one guy grab back the microphone that he had confiscated when the question went on too long.
Christie pitched his voice in a warm, helpful tone and, in an instamacy Instagram moment, took a knee to high-five a 3-year-old named Nicole Mariano who keened that Sandy broke her house.
He stayed dispassionate even on the most passionate topic. When a military veteran named Joe Williams urged him to destroy his Springsteen CDs — given the Boss’s tart parody of Christie’s bridge woes with Jimmy Fallon — the governor smiled and said he had the rocker on his iPhone.
Noting that he had been to 132 Springsteen concerts, he said rather wistfully, “Hey, listen, I don’t do drugs. I don’t drink. This is it for me, O.K.? It’s all I got. I still live in hope that someday, even as he gets older and older, he’s gonna wake up and go like, ‘Yeah, he’s all right. He’s a good guy. It’s all right. We can be friends.’ ”
No one is saying Christie has lost his political talents. Rick Klein, for instance, thought Christie triumphed in the town meeting in several ways:
This was a governor back in his comfort zone, mostly, operating in a new but not unrecognizable normal. And he was re-learning (or teaching?) a lesson about how stories and even big scandals need new oxygen. His quiet strategy of late is working, if the fact that scrutiny is falling on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s emails, and the traffic violations of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s police detail, is any guide. This story is far from over from Christie. But don’t forget that Christie became Christie for a reason: He’s still got political chops
And the bottom line, as The Politico noted, was that “a more restrained Christie was on display.”
But all politicians have their “moments.” And some defer and it’s too late. The most classic case was then-New York Governor Mario Cuomo who waited and waited and agonized so much that some pundits called him “Hamlet on the Hudson.” Christie’s moment was 2012 — but, then, who knows if he would have been as nice to President Barack Obama visiting his state during Hurricane Sandy if he had been the GOP nominee?
What does this mean? If Christie survives scandal and runs, he will be a greatly diminished, downsized Christie from the one who could entered the fray in 2012 as a candidate for the nomination or nominee. Forget Democrats picking him apart, Republicans can, too.
His imagery has changed. His “branding” is different. The political commodity that would be marketed to the public would not be entirely the same — or be perceived as the same. Which must make Democrats (and many Republicans) smile…
UPDATE: On the other hand, No More Mister Nice Blog points out that polls show the American public has long had mixed feelings about Christie and his national numbers only went up when he tempered his pugilistic image — when he welcomed Obama into his state to help his residents with Sandy.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.