Wow, that was quick.
It took Sen. John McCain, the straight-talking maverick from Arizona, eight long years—between the presidential campaigns of 2000 and 2008—to be transformed from media darling to media target. But for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the process was completed in a political nanosecond.
Less than two months after his landslide reelection, in which he beat Democratic opponent Barbara Buono by a 21-point margin, the Republican governor is undergoing the sort of media metamorphosis that sometimes befalls popular statewide politicians who dare to think of themselves as future presidents.
To paraphrase Franz Kafka, Christie awoke one morning last week and, reading the front page of The New York Times, discovered that he’d been changed into a giant bully. In his new media incarnation, he was suddenly a politician who wreaks petty revenge and humiliation on any poor soul who is unwise enough to cross him, and who countenanced the closure of two local access lanes of the George Washington Bridge, causing vehicular chaos for four days in Fort Lee, N.J., where the Democratic mayor had declined to endorse him.
This, for a public official who previously had been portrayed in the national media as a truth-telling, tough-talking executive who was willing to reach across the aisle to get things done.
Arguably worse, Double Down, a book about the 2012 campaign released in early November, just as Christie was racking up his 60-percent vote total, depicted the governor previously celebrated for uncompromising honesty as a possibly shady New Jersey pol who’d done lucrative backroom favors for political allies, lobbied for the business interests of Bernie Madoff and his ilk, lacked that ineffable quality called “presidential temperament,” and freely spent the taxpayer’s dime for his own personal aggrandizement, among other disturbing details reportedly uncovered by Mitt Romney’s vice presidential vetting team.
He was also, Romney’s vetters are said to have concluded, alarmingly obese—although the governor has been noticeably slimming down since his lap-band surgery in June.
The good news for Team Christie is that the media’s alterations on Christie’s portrait have yet to make a dent in his popularity among voters. The latest CNN poll has the governor running well ahead of other likely contenders for the 2016 Republican nomination, even beating Hillary Clinton by a sliver in a hypothetical head-to-head. That fact alone permits Christie loyalists to greet the new negativity with a healthy degree of sangfroid.
“The governor is not a complete stranger to intense scrutiny and coverage and is not surprised by it,” says a Christie aide, noting that the boss has had the national spotlight trained on him from the moment he campaigned for fellow Republicans in the 2010 midterm elections, through the endless speculation about his 2012 plans and his much-analyzed keynote speech to the GOP convention in Tampa. “The other thing he’s not surprised by is when media outlets and Democratic organizations make him a target.”
The Christie aide added: “When you’ve had success like he has had, there comes a degree of scrutiny and also attacks from outside forces with political motivations. The fact that there is already a greater degree of scrutiny isn’t a surprise either. The governor himself said recently, ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore.’ ”
Christie made his little quip, acknowledging the intrusion of presidential politics, during a news conference at which the bridge snafu was front and center. He was suspected but never quite implicated in the nasty business, and the smoking traffic cones were instead laid at the feet of Christie appointees who couldn’t be shown to have consulted the governor, let alone taken orders from him, before acting possibly on their own.
“It’s all a setup,” says Michael Steele, who was chairman of the Republican National Committee when Christie first ran for governor in 2009. “It plays itself out in a variety of ways, sometimes aided by the main target, sometimes by subordinates or opposition camps. There’s a tendency to reach that turning point so that the knives come out and the new narrative begins.”
In what amounts to Steele’s political-literary analysis, the current storyline began in November 2012, when Christie disappointed the Romney campaign and enraged fellow Republicans—but charmed the East Coast media establishment—by embracing President Obama in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. “The political leadership on the left, and even some on the right, were enamored of this man and his style and his ability to cut through the BS and tell it like it is,” Steele says. “How saucy, how sexy, how wonderful for politics!”
Then came Christie’s universally predicted reelection victory, which the media treated as big news portending bright prospects for higher office. And then…
“Since this past November, you have seen the slow and steady drumbeat of degradation,” Steele says. “It’s the media’s and the Democrats’ effort to take down that which they summarily have built up and to begin to carve into bite-size chunks a narrative that will unfold itself over the next year in preparation for the 2016 cycle.”
The irony, Steele says, is that “Chris Christie is the same guy today as he was when he sat in my office when I was national chairman during his first bid for the governorship of New Jersey…He’s still the same breath of fresh air, the same guy who can create a new narrative for the Republican Party and the country, which is longing and starving for it. So, for me, this is just unbelievable bullshit, and it says to me that there are interests in the media and in politics who don’t want the status quo to change, and who actually like this red/blue politics crisis-management model.”
Democratic media consultant Jimmy Siegel, who is no fan of Christie and believes that he probably is a bully, concurs with a central theme of Steele’s analysis—that much of the recent unflattering coverage is being influenced, if not orchestrated, by Democratic operatives.
“Now they’re going after him,” Siegel says. “I think they read the polls like everyone else, and they want people to see him as something different from the straight-talking lung-to-tongue guy who tells it the way it is and is willing to reach across the aisle. So now they’re portraying the more unsavory aspects of his character.”
Siegel theorizes that Christie, who has handled the bridge flap with admirable restraint, might ultimately revert to form and damage himself in an angry explosion. “If there is any politician who is susceptible to an ‘A Few Good Men’ moment—the Jack Nicholson character who is put under so much pressure that he will lash out at any moment—it’s Christie. And his opponents are hoping that will happen. It hasn’t so far.”
Steele, too, cautions that Christie should exercise discipline and not do anything that could fuel new headlines. “You can become your own worst enemy in these narratives to prove a point, and come out on the other end not smelling or looking as good as you think you should,” Steele says. “You’ve got to be careful you don’t create new negative narratives going forward.”
Republican consultant E. O’Brien Murray, who argues that Christie’s Sandy embrace of Barack Obama will be featured in far more GOP primary attack ads than charges of bullying, says there might even be an upside to the current negative portrayals of the governor in the so-called “lamestream media.”
For conservative primary voters in, say, Iowa—who might be naturally suspicious of a middle-of-the-road Northeastern Republican—unfavorable media coverage “might create a halo over his head,” Murray says. “It certainly helped Ronald Reagan, who always said that when The New York Times agreed with him, it was a bad day.”