Gloria Borger: On paper, Christie seemed a strong candidate for 2016
She says George Washington Bridge scandal raises questions about his temperament
Every major politician has enemies, but issue is how you deal with them, she says
Borger: If Christie is perceived as vindictive, that weakens his claim to presidential caliber
It’s a cliche of American presidential politics – the president we elect is always a reaction to what came before. As in: Nixonian shenanigans eventually gave rise to Jimmy Carter’s self-righteousness. Clintonesque parsing gave way to George W. Bush’s plain speaking. Bush’s plain speaking begat Barack Obama’s lofty speechifying.
Oversimplified? Yes. But true nonetheless.
And so we head into 2016 (yes, already) and Chris Christie’s ready-made narrative: If Obama is lofty, Christie is down to earth. If Obama wasn’t tough enough, he’s hard-hitting. If Obama couldn’t run his complex health care rollout, he’s a strong manager. If Obama was partisan, he’s worked across party lines.
In sum: Christie can lead in the precise ways that Obama disappointed.
Until a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge. Then came another stark contrast: the vindictive – and more important, petty – Christie culture as opposed to the stature the presidency demands.
So far, the New Jersey melodrama looks like the worst side of the Christie ethos. The apparent reprisals against Democratic mayors. The vanity of featuring the Christie family in taxpayer-funded commercials. The environment in which retribution reigned when Christie did not get what he wanted. The arrogance of believing he was deserving of it all, and to hell with the rest of ‘em.
The grand storyline behind all of this, of course, is the design on the presidency: Christie wanted to be re-elected by such an overwhelming margin that it would launch his national aspirations into the stratosphere. The plan was to get bipartisan support to show his viability as a national candidate. All who stood in the way were official enemies.
This is not to say that presidents don’t have enemies. Of course they do. You don’t get elected to any office in this country, much less president of the United States, without accumulating political enemies. But the real question is WHY you consider someone an enemy, and then, how you deal with it.
As president, LBJ had always had a bunch, but the enmity – and payback – generally came over issues, not self-aggrandizement. It’s Politics 101: If you want to pass a civil rights bill and you don’t get a “yes” vote from an opponent who wants a bridge in his state, no bridge.
That’s very different from saying if you don’t endorse my candidacy I will shut down your bridge. That’s not politics; it’s puny payback. And, worse, the impact is felt not only by the opponent, but by his – and your – constituents. A bridge way too far.
Then consider Bill Clinton, who had plenty of enemies. A former senior Clinton adviser reminds me that “it became a joke that the best thing to be was Clinton’s enemy. If 99 people in a room were for him, and one was against him, he would spend all his time trying to persuade that one guy he was wrong. And he was always willing to argue the substance. Always. In fact, he enjoyed it.”
This is not to turn Clinton and LBJ into saintly role models and Christie into the devil. But it is to say that Christie’s staff shenanigans – which he says he did not know about – have raised enormous questions about his temperament and how he would run a White House. In fact, a Monmouth University poll released this week shows that only 44% of New Jersey voters believe that their governor has the right temperament for the Oval Office.
The characterization of Christie and Obama as opposite numbers is accurate in many ways. There’s this: When then-Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Democrat-turned-independent, endorsed Republican Sen. John McCain for the presidency in 2008 – and became his outspoken travel buddy – there were calls for retribution after Obama won.
So what did Obama do? He kept Lieberman on as chairman of an important committee. It kept an enemy close, not a bad strategy.
Obama is cool and Christie is all drama. And now a line of argument against him as petty and vindictive has been opened up that will become the default narrative. But Christie will be defined as much by how he deals with this episode as the episode itself.
No one expects – or really wants – Chris Christie to morph into a false version of himself.
But how about some elevation – and some perspective – that flies way above the traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge?
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.