If there is a singular skill that separates presidential contenders from presidential “also-rans” it is discipline. The ability to stay on message, to keep emotions in check, to avoid distractions, to understand that the long-game must take precedence over the daily news cycle and to dodge the inevitable political headaches that emerge is essential to political success on a national stage.
Obama has it; W had it; Nixon (at least in public) was practically the king. Here’s who doesn’t have it: Chris Christie, and it’s the reason that his political career is on life support.
Even before the bombshell revelations that his top aides actively sought to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey by closing down on-ramps to the George Washington Bridge, it was fairly obvious that Christie was a man whose decisions were guided as much by impulse and emotion as political calculation.
There have been not one or two but repeated losses of his temper, even with his own constituents. This video of Christie yelling at a skeptic on the Jersey boardwalk while holding aloft an ice cream cone spoke to Christie’s remarkable inability (particularly for a politician) to control his temper. He couldn’t even prevent himself from yelling at a teacher who questioned his education policies only days before Election Day in November.
To be sure, lots of politicians are thin-skinned. But Christie is different, with his almost complete lack of impulse control. An article last month in the New York Times highlighted Christie’s struggles. After John F McKeon, a New Jersey assemblyman, offered a mild critique of Christie’s relationship with public sector employees, he received a handwritten note complaining about it. “What governor would take the time to write a personal note over a relatively innocuous comment?” asked McKeon.
But this behavior fits a regular pattern of reprisals and retaliation against anyone who even mildly crosses Christie.
A disciplined politician would understand the pitfalls of making so many political enemies and of acting so harshly in public. But not Christie, which leads us to this week’s “Bridge-gate”.
What is perhaps most striking about these actions is that they were directed at a small-town mayor who refused to endorse Christie in a gubernatorial race in 2013 that he had basically no chance of losing. Christie was always going to wallop his Democratic opponent Barbara Buono. The real subtext of the race was the governor’s entrance onto the national stage as a Republican presidential contender. If there was ever a moment to let bygones be bygones or to turn the other cheek, it was here.
Of course, Christie has decided to use the Captain Renault defense, “‘I’m shocked, shocked that my aides would do this.” He even claimed (we can only assume with a straight face) that, “this behavior is not representative of me or my administration in any way.” It’s the rhetoric equivalent of a drone strike on irony.
We may never know for sure, but personally, I don’t buy for a second the notion that Christie’s deputy chief of staff and his hand-picked choice for the Port Authority were operating independently of Christie. That he has a long track record of personally striking back at political opponents who cross him – but sat this one out – stretches credibility. As the New York Times noted:
Even Republican lawmakers who have supported Mr Christie tell stories of being punished when he perceived them as not supporting him enough.
At this point, the New Jersey governor has lost any right to the benefit of the doubt.
Even if Christie wasn’t involved, what does it say about the culture in the governor’s office? What kind of shop is he running when one of his most trusted aides would feel comfortable conspiring with the Port Authority to use lane closures as a way to punish Christie’s political opponents? Even if Christie was at arms length on the bridge closures, his fingerprints are all over this.
It’s why that when the smoke clears not only will Christie no longer be the front-runner for the Republican nomination – there’s a reasonable chance he’ll no longer be Governor of New Jersey. To be sure, it was always going to be difficult for Christie to win over Republican primary voters – what with his willingness to shake hands with President Obama and his feint toward political moderation. But the bigger problem for Christie was cultural. Republicans voters like a tough guy, but there’s toughness and then there’s Jersey toughness. These aren’t the same things.
Above all what today’s revelations demonstrate is that he simply lacked the discipline to be a national figure, to undergo political scrutiny and to respond to political differences with something other than fury. He was a ticking time bomb as a politician. It was only a matter of time before he blew up.