The Bully Steps Up to the Pulpit

He’s in. At a high school suffering from the more than $1 billion in educational budget cuts pushed through by his administration, Chris Christie announced that he is gunning for the GOP nomination in the 2016 presidential election. It wasn’t unexpected, but all eyes were on New Jersey today, looking to see how he’d frame his campaign.

If you watched the speech, there’s no denying the man has charisma. He meandered casually about the stage with the intensity that’s become his trademark, his delivery as direct and energetic as ever. The refrain wasn’t unique. Most of his speech echoed what we’ve already heard from other GOP candidates. Arguably, most of it was fluff.

And then he actually said he was running. Suddenly, angry Chris Christie was back in full force. He railed against social safety nets, proclaiming their very existence a form of institutionalized theft. He spoke passionately on the importance of American hegemony, sneering contemptuously at Obama’s attempts to cultivate soft power through diplomacy. You could see him struggling to reign in the rage. The faltering composure and fuming rhetoric hardly aligned with his intermittent insistence that leaders needed to learn to work together.

Still, love him or hate him, Chris Christie is definitely a firebrand. But does he stand a chance? If we’d asked that question four years ago, it might be a different story, but things have changed dramatically for the governor since then. As Andy Kiersz wrote for Business Insider:

Many Republican donors urged him to run against President Barack Obama in 2012. His popularity soared in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. And he cruised to a blowout re-election as governor in 2013.

But over the past year and a half, different elements have pummeled his image in and out of his home state. There’s the Bridgegate scandal, to which he was never directly linked but which clearly damaged his reputation as an executive. Then there’s the economic story under his governorship: He has endured nine credit downgrades under his watch and has had continual problems with his state’s budget.

These problems have taken a toll on his approval ratings. The most recent polls put him at an all time personal low, with only 30% of New Jersey voters believing he’s doing a good job in office. Indeed, the local media has skewered Christie, warning the nation of what his presidency might look like. Some of it, like an editorial claiming Christie would launch America into WWIII, comes off as just as full of bluster as Christie himself, but others have been more sobering, like veteran journalist Tom Moran’s thorough account of the governor’s dishonesty from the inception of his career to today. He pulls no punches, writing:

Most Americans don’t know Chris Christie like I do, so it’s only natural to wonder what testimony I might offer after covering his every move for the last 14 years.

Is it his raw political talent? No, they can see that.

Is it his measurable failure to fix the economy, solve the budget crisis or even repair the crumbling bridges? No, his opponents will cover that if he ever gets traction.

My testimony amounts to a warning: Don’t believe a word the man says.

The article is as much a worthy read as it is a nauseating reminder of what passes as presidential material among GOP voters. But even if the approval ratings don’t matter, even if his track record doesn’t ruffle feathers, even if his lies don’t hurt him, the fire that gained him national attention may be his undoing in the end. Christie is well known for being a bully. As the Washington Post pointed out last year:

The reason Chris Christie is so good at this is that Chris Christie is actually a bully. That doesn’t mean he’s not also a nice guy who cares deeply about his family and his constituents and his country. It doesn’t mean he’s not an unusually honest politician who’s refreshingly free of cant and willing to question his party. There’s a lot about Christie that’s deeply appealing. But there’s one big thing that’s not: He’s someone who uses his office to intimidate people and punish or humiliate perceived enemies.

Watch this video of him screaming at a guy on the New Jersey Boardwalk. Watch him stalk toward the man, flanked by security and aides. Listen to what he actually says. “Keep walking. Keep walking.”

That’s not typical behavior for an adult. It’s definitely not typical behavior for a national politician. But it’s typical behavior for a bully. In fact, it’s not even very creative bullying. Anyone who’s ever been a boy in an American middle school has heard “keep walking!”

What makes Christie unusual is that he’s a bully with power. That can be a dangerous combination.

It can indeed. It also gives his opponents ample opportunity to talk about just how ill-suited he is to hold the highest office in the land; Rand Paul started with that last November. Put him on a debate stage, let his temper flare, and things could get ugly in a hurry for Christie. There’s only so much negativity that the electorate can stand.

Then again, Donald Trump’s racism pushed him within 3 points of Jeb Bush in New Hampshire. Who knows? Maybe a bully is exactly what Republicans want — capabilities and character be damned.

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