Tuesday, November 05, 2013


The American Prospect's Paul Waldman thinks we're about to experience nothing more than a "brief explosion of Christie Mania," while, over at The Washington Post, Jonathan Bernstein tells us that it doesn't matter whether Christie has a powerful personality, because that's not what decides presidential elections.

They're both missing the point.

Waldman writes:
... when Chris Christie wins that race easily, as he will, we'll be treated to a brief but overwhelming deluge of stories about Christie's 2016 presidential candidacy. He certainly sounds like he's ready to start running, and it's safe to say the press corps would love it if he did.

That isn't because they have any particular strong feelings about his politics. It's because he's great copy. You think it'd be fun taking a few months of your life to follow Bobby Jindal around Iowa while he plasters on a fake smile and tries to look interested in what farmers have to say? God, no. But with Christie, you never know what he's going to do. He might swear. He might snap at a schoolteacher (he has a particular contempt for teachers). He might call one of his political opponents "numbnuts."

All of which is great fun for journalists used to covering the usual walking haircuts who calculate every word that comes out of their mouths to offend the fewest number of people.
But the Republican Party is full of people who aren't dullards and "walking haircuts" -- and yet don't I see Chuck Todd or the Morning Joe crew slavering at the prospect of a Steve King presidential bid, or another run by Michele Bachmann. The guys in the press corps -- and I'm thinking almost exclusively of the guys -- don't just want candidates to be interesting, they want them to be interesting in a way that appeals to them.

Bernstein writes:
When we talk about Christie, we usually end up talking about his personality. So it's worth a quick refresher on the importance of candidates in presidential elections.

The short version? Candidates matter a lot in nomination politics; they matter hardly at all in presidential general elections.

The slightly longer version: In general elections, votes are driven mainly by party, and secondarily by voters' retrospective evaluation of the incumbent party. Everything else: candidate, campaign, specific issues outside of the party context ... it's sloppy to say that they "don't matter," but the truth is that they matter only on the margins.
Do you agree with this? Do you think Bill Clinton also would have gotten into a photo finish with George W. Bush in 2000 if he could have run for a third term? I don't, and I think personality has a lot to do with that.

But I disagree with the first assertion in what I've quoted from Bernstein. I don't agree that "when we talk about Christie, we usually end up talking about his personality." That's certainly not true of Bernstein's fellow pundits.

When they talk about Christie, they talk about a combination of things: his personality, his (real or imagined) conduct in office, his (real or imagined) political positions. They talk about how all these things add up to -- as far as they're concerned -- a tasty, perfectly blended, highly intoxicating political cocktail. And it's all interrelated: Christie cares about stuff a lot! That's why he hugs! That's why he yells! That's why he gets his agenda through a Democratic state legislature! That's why he says nasty things about how business is done in D.C.! That's why he could heal American politics!

Sorry, I just turned into a starburst-seeing mainstream pundit for a second there.

But that's the point. Christie isn't just a guy with a big personality. He's a guy who's very, very good at building a myth of himself, using that big personality, among other things. He's got the voters of his state buying the myth. He has Washington and New York journalists eating out of his hand because they buy the myth.

He still has to get past the insane voters in his party. I think he's going to lose the nomination if he doesn't tack very far to the right, and he may stop making insider journos feel a tingle up their legs if he tacks as far right as he'll need to -- that's what happened to an earlier press-corps crush, John McCain.

But if he can thread the needle somehow, he's going to be dangerous, because he's not just building a collection of YouTube clips -- he's building a narrative. And so far, it's the book the press corps wants read to it every night before bed.


Victor said...

President Tony Soprano.
Yo, it's gotta nice ring to it, no?
Wadja mean, "No!"?
Youse a wiseguyursomethin'?

aimai said...

There's a downside to building a narrative, like there is a downside to building a towering pile of shit--flie are attracted and then other scavengers and eventually you get taken down. Its called Tall Poppy Syndrome.

NO one disputes that Christie is a master manipulator, bully, hard right conservative in a state he could run from a mid blue range and do just great in. But he doesn't want that. He prefers the Republican goals specifically because they allow him to be a massive asshole and they assuage his power fantasies. So: OK, he's running in the Republican primary. But all this attention is going to be a mixed blessing. Because he can't fully control the narrative and his persona is an aquired and niche taste.

As for colorful--Steve King and Michelle Bachmann are colorful but they aren't actually all that much fun to follow around. They don't have the money, they don't attract the attention, and they don't spread around the goodies as much as a high roller/high liver like Christie probably does. At any rate, thats not the way reporters see the choice of who to cover: the question is do you get stuck covering person A or person B. Where will your friends be? Where are the best hotels and freest food and drink? Christie is going to be a heavy hitter in the primaries and following him is going to be fun. Odds are good that following one of the holy rollers or born agains will not be fun.

Glennis said...

I think Christie's success in Jersey has a lot to do with the fact that there's no viable alternative.

Philboid Studge said...

@aimai: "There's a downside to building a narrative, like there is a downside to building a towering pile of shit--flie are attracted and then other scavengers and eventually you get taken down. Its called Tall Poppy Syndrome."

This isn't exactly what TPS means (at least not in the UK). The tall poppies are people of actual merit who, because their achievements tower over everyone else's, get cut down by others due to envy. Perhaps the connotation is a bit different in America?

aimai said...

Its not used here at all so I'm sure I did misuse it. here, if people know about the phrase, they take it to mean "standing out" in a crowd, for whatever reason.

aimai said...

But I'd like to add that what I was principally thinking of was Gary Hart daring people to follow him and being found with his mistress. Although we like to talk about "the press" and certainly theres a group think that goes on about candidates and their electability or the meaning and value of their voters there is definitely competition within the press corps over certain kinds of stories. Chris Christie has some serious corruption problems--those may not be sexy enough to merit exploitation by the press but you never know. Attention can be a bad thing for a candidate when the majority of voters will be ignorant of his real history.

See Palin, Sarah, for what happens when her press flacks believed that there was possibly more to her intellectually than really was there? Kristol et al who were pushing her deluded themselves that she could stand the white hot heat of the campaign trail. She was certainly popular with a certain crowd--but she turned off the very people Kristol thought would like her.

Christie's culturally positive attributes (tough guy, speaks his mind) will play well with some Republican voters and badly with others. His corruption will play well with some and not with others. And there are probably hidden scandals waiting to be discovered that may run counter the narrative--cross dressing? muslim hugging? failure to make enough gestures to jesus? investment in mafia/porn not controlled by the Marriott corporation? We just don't know.

Tom Hilton said...

I agree with the point that the Washington press corps love affair with Christie isn't ending anytime soon. I don't think that's going to make much of a difference, though (hello, President Giuliani).

Phil Freeman said...

Christie will never hold any office higher than Governor of NJ. Anybody who can't see that is deluding themselves out of a need to file copy (or have something to blog about, same difference).

Examinator said...

While I tend to agree with Aimai's assessment of Christie From a rational perspective, I would suggest that the rump electorate tends to think in emotive terms. In essence the general voters tend to want a 'strong(?)' personality, some one who will take charge so they don't have to think (reason) deeply. Quasi father figure e.g. Reagan. Someone who will maintain their 'comfort ' zone (no policy lurches) hence the hostility to 'socialist' (?) agendas. Someone who fix entrenched issues that appear not directly impact them on a personal level.
This is evidenced by the extraordinary (unrealistic) belief in POTAS, (see the levels of expectation on Obama). Notwithstanding the deliberate manipulated party partisanship that favors those who have the power.

That said, her final conclusion about Christie needing to thread the needle is truly apt.
Given that fear is a greater motivator than feel good the key to the next election will be the nature of the thrust of the campaign.
The Republicans will need to maintain the rage against DNC (they might go the lessor 'lurching towards socialism(?)' (sic) route) but not fan the partisan ship too. Certainly if they are to woo the uncommitted voters.
I am of the view that the current GOP are suffering the consequences of Karl Rove's myopic campaign strategy of empowering the rat bag right without any idea how to moderate it's excesses...Too much political Junk food symptom... they are gorging at the moment. Fed by the self interested (messianic types?) funding.

In essence what I'm leading too is the philosophic flaw of the founding father's thinking i.e. that possession of wealth = competence = right to rule, the underlying principal to conservative/capitalism. As a consequence of this flaw flows through the current political system and they will make the final decision as to the suitability of any candidate.