Goodbye to Christie, With A Hug and A Kiss

There will be plenty of time to unpack the results of the New Hampshire primary in the days that follow. Now that the campaign is past the frenzy of the first two gate-keeping, there is a little breathing room before voting resumes on February 20th. It would be a mistake, however, to move immediately to forecasting those contests without reflecting for a moment on the candidates we’ve lost. In particular, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, once the potential Republican savior in 2012 and the presidential frontrunner for much of 2013, suffered a fascinating demise. Christie withdrew from the race on Wednesday after finishing in sixth place in New Hampshire with only 7.4% of the vote, despite focusing his campaign almost exclusively on doing well there. Yet, after staking his candidacy on the wisdom of New Hampshire voters, those fiercely independent New Englanders did not return his affection. That’s politics, of course, and Christie’s is not the first campaign to have made a Granite State bet that did not pay off. But it is worth pausing to consider exactly why Christie failed to gain any traction in a state that seemed so tailor-made for his style. John McCain, after all, famously won New Hampshire’s primary twice on the wheels of his Straight Talk Express, and Christie, like McCain, holds a moderate, tough-talking brand and excellent retail campaigning skills. His failure to resonate suggests, then, that the “independent-minded” citizens of New Hampshire may hold a more negative view of Christie’s Garden State governance than many anticipated.  And just maybe that impression of the larger-than-life governor is based not on his persistent bluster or bullying, but rather his moment of bipartisan weakness.

To be sure, Christie was undone by many factors large and small—the waning appeal of his abrasive style, the rise of Donald Trump, and the national outcry over his office’s closure of several lanes on the George Washington bridge as an act of political retribution, to name a few. “Bridgegate,” as the latter scandal soon became known, was particularly damaging. In September 2013, as Christie campaigned for re-election as governor, the Port Authority police department created a massive traffic jam in Fort Lee, New Jersey when it closed down all but one lane on the GW bridge connecting the town with New York. The gridlock lasted an incredible four days, preventing children from getting to school, parents from getting to work, and emergency personnel from reaching those in need. A federal investigation later concluded, with the aid of incriminating emails from Christie’s staff, that the governor’s closest aides orchestrated the mess as payback for the Fort Lee mayor’s decision not to endorse Christie’s re-election. Although Christie has not yet been directly implicated, many have suggested, as Rand Paul recently did, that “it stretches credulity to think he knew nothing about the bridge.” The fallout was severe. Two top Christie aides are under indictment and a third has already pled guilty to federal charges. Christie himself still faces the possibility of serious legal consequences, despite his protestations of innocence and the current, relative calm enveloping the saga. Finally, the Governor’s treasured spot atop the early Republican field crashed back to earth in late December 2013 when the scandal broke. Among the general public, Christie’s bridge scandal was undoubtedly the most devastating hit to his once sterling reputation.

And yet, in this jungle of a Republican presidential primary, it still feels like a different, more partisan mistake was the real anchor wrapped around Christie’s leg. Christie initially received a pass from conservative voters for some of his more moderate positions because of New Jersey’s status as a dark blue state. Christie’s party-line positioning on public sector pension and tax reform, along with his willingness to shout down liberals (his “none of your business” moment being the most famous) was enough. But in a party trained to despise the other side, Christie’s famous decision to aid the great enemy of conservatives was unforgiveable, regardless of the reason. No matter how hard he tried, nothing could seemingly erase an image fixed in the minds of Republican voters. No amount of tough talk or childish insults could undo the time that Governor Christie kind-of, sort-of, maybe hugged President Barack Obama.

One week before the 2012 election, Hurricane Sandy struck the Atlantic coast, leaving devastation in its wake. The total cost of the storm was immense, and in New Jersey, businesses suffered $8.3 billion in losses and 346,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. At the height of the storm and just days before the election, Governor Christie welcomed President Obama to survey the wreckage, and the two toured the Jersey Shore together. Speaking to the press, Christie offered effusive praise for Obama: “The president has been all over this and he deserves great credit. I’ve been on the phone with him, like I said, yesterday, personally three times. He gave me his number at the White House, told me to call him if I needed anything. And he absolutely means it.” In what would become the indelible image of the storm, Obama and Christie warmly greeted each other in what would later be described as a hug. Christie would later vehemently dispute the notion that his physical contact with the President was, in fact, a hug—the video and photographic evidence agree; it was more of a close handshake—but his words of gratitude toward Obama could certainly be considered a metaphorical embrace.

“The Hug” was a point of anger for conservatives in the aftermath of Romney’s defeat. Many, including those in the Romney camp, blamed the positive press and flattering images of the President working closely and effectively with a governor of the opposite party for his election-night victory (although there’s no real statistically meaningful evidence supporting this theory; Obama held a significant lead in pre-Sandy polls consistent with his ultimate margin of victory). The New York Times reported two weeks after the election that “the intensity of the reaction from those in Mr. Christie’s party caught him by surprise, interviews show, requiring a rising Republican star to try to contain a tempest that left him feeling deeply misunderstood and wounded.” While Christie remained unrepentant, his poll numbers among Republican primary voters began to recede. It seems that this action was the moment Republican primary voters could not get over. Yes, Christie is a bully and an empty suit. But he was defeated this year by Republican voters, a group who have not been deterred from supporting another candidate with those features from the tri-state area. Rather, the Hug wholly undermined Christie’s identity as a conservative bomb-thrower against the forces of political correctness and liberal elitism in his heavily Democratic state because it harmed his political team in its moment of greatest need, one week before it had the chance to expel its hated rival. His image among conservative voters has suffered ever since.

The pattern was familiar to those who remember the fate of another famous centrist politician a decade ago. In 2006, then Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman was felled in a Democratic primary by the little-known antiwar businessman Ned Lamont. Despite running as Al Gore’s vice presidential nominee in 2000, Lieberman had long been a thorn in his party’s side. In 1998, at a time when Republicans in Congress equated extramarital sex with “high crimes and misdemeanors,” he strongly condemned President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky on the floor of the Senate, refusing even to dispel the question that he might support the President’s impeachment and removal from office. In 2000, with his own election to the vice presidency in the balance, Lieberman took to NBC’s “Meet the Press” to undermine Gore’s position on a core recount dispute to make himself look good, at a time when the Bush campaign was united in pushing for every disenfranchising inch. Then, in 2004, Lieberman entered the Democratic race for the presidency, campaigning from the center-right and in support of the Iraq war. At a time when Howard Dean’s antiwar crusade fueled his own rise to frontrunner status, Lieberman doubled down on his vote in favor of the invasion. During that campaign, Lieberman attacked anti-war Democrats as “extremists.” After his resounding defeat in the New Hampshire primary, he apparently became hardened against the liberal wing of his own party.

But none of that compared to what many Democrats viewed as Lieberman’s ultimate betrayal (to that point, that is as in 2008, he would go even farther and endorse Republican John McCain over Obama). As the situation in Iraq deteriorated, Lieberman maintained his staunch support for the conflict and undermined Democratic efforts to withhold funding and force withdrawal. Liberals were incensed. And so they latched onto a blurry video of a passing moment no one could have expected to attract nearly the attention that it did. Just months after his reelection, President Bush, at his State of the Union speech, reached over and greeted Lieberman with—yes, there’s no mistaking it—an actual kiss planted squarely on his right cheek.

“The Kiss” was a defining feature of the Lieberman-Lamont primary battle in the August heatwave of 2006. The liberal blog Daily Kos seized on the moment as part of its crusade against Lieberman, and an enterprising Connecticut Democrat created an iconic “Kiss Float” out of papier-mache depicting the President leaning in for a wet one on Lieberman’s face. The float followed Lieberman throughout his campaign appearances and became a central theme of the Lamont campaign, which ultimately dealt Lieberman a 52% to 48% primary defeat. In the end, Lieberman once again rejected his Democratic identity and ultimately secured reelection by running in the general election as an Independent. He beat Lamont 49% to 40%, with 10% going to the Republican candidate. The stain of the primary defeat and his subsequent defection nevertheless severed his last connections with the party. Lieberman would retire in 2012 after serving that last six-year term.

One way to view this phenomenon is through the eyes of the late high priest of centrist consensus—David Broder. Writing in the Washington Post two days after the primary upset, Broder’s Lamont lament wistfully noted:

Lieberman could claim 18 years of Senate seniority and long service in state government, a reputation for personal integrity, prominence on both foreign and domestic issues, and the active support of his party leaders from Bill Clinton on down. But when I went to Connecticut three weeks before the primary, it was evident that he was going to be overwhelmed by the passion to “send a message” through Lamont of frustration with the war in Iraq, the Bush presidency and Congress. Lieberman, as I wrote, represented a candidacy, while Lamont embodied a cause — and it was clear that the cause would prevail.

Thus, in Broder’s view, Lieberman’s ouster from his party for adopting and defending a Republican policy with which the vast majority of Democrats viewed as an anathema—a war that was not just wrong but disastrous—was not a triumph of democracy; instead it was— as he approvingly quoted Lieberman as saying in an earlier article about the Connecticut primary—a rejection of “diversity of opinion” in favor of “a kind of crusade or jihad…to have everybody toe the line.” In other words, according to this view, Lieberman courageously stood up for what was right in the face of extremists incapable of tolerating dissent. No doubt many view Christie’s downfall in the same light. Here was a governor who placed people ahead of politics, and all that Republican partisans could see was the president he assisted rather than the lives he saved. But is that really the lesson we should take from the precipitous falls of Messrs. Lieberman and Christie?

If there is one unifying trait between the two, it is not unappreciated independence but unbridled egotism. In Lieberman’s case, he repeatedly showed contempt for his party’s supporters in order to elevate his own career. His careful moderation on center-right issues championed by the press—impeachment, war, and ending the Florida recount—did grievous harm to Democratic causes in exchange for glowing respect from pundits and Republicans. This is not about showing respect for politicians from the other party; recognizing the legitimacy of, and respectfully discussing, others’ views is critical to a functioning political process. This is about actively undermining the will of one’s own constituents. There is no question that a politician who breaks with their party or does the politically unpopular to do what is unequivocally just acts courageously and correctly. But there is nothing extreme or close-minded about primary voters who look at their elected representative and conclude, “he doesn’t represent me.” For this reason, Democrats were entirely justified in leaving Lieberman for feeling like he had left them.

While Christie’s apostasy was far more benign, his reasons for embracing Obama were equally self-absorbed. Welcoming and praising the president in the way he did was not necessary to Sandy relief efforts. Calling the president and asking him for money and federal support were necessary and noble steps on behalf of New Jersey’s welfare. Appearing arm-in-arm with Obama for hours during the height of the storm, however, was a photo-op. To do so, while incessantly and gratuitously praising Obama’s responsiveness and effectiveness one week before the election was unnecessary to storm survival. It was instead performed simply to burnish the governor’s image among centrists and Democrats and to achieve press attention. Why should Republican voters committed to opposing Obama’s policies forgive or forget?

The lesson in all of this is that bipartisanship in the service of self is no virtue. Indeed, bipartisanship should never be an end in itself. Politics is about representation. Sometimes, often even, effectively representing one’s supporters and constituents requires conciliation and deal-making. Compromise on large pieces of legislation, even where it results in the enactment of harmful policies in furtherance of a greater goal, is responsible governance. But bipartisanship itself, without a view toward effective representation of the wishes of the people, is not the lofty achievement many make it out to be. This is the political truth Christie violated. He should not be surprised Republicans did not hug him back.

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