North America

Was that joke on us?

In last year’s Republican primaries, there were two somewhat charming, sometimes ferocious Northerners, both running in ways that were neither conventionally “establishment” (like Bush, Rubio, and Kasich) nor conventionally “anti-establishment” (like Cruz, Carson, Fiorina, or Perry).

Both of these candidates were fat—though one had once been skinny, while the other had once been humungous. One was your common politician type, willing to make a deal with the devil in order to rise to power. The other was the devil; who, as usual, did not adequately reward the deal.

Okay, I think you see where I’m going with this. One was named Donald Trump and the other Chris Christie. Trump ended up getting 24.3 percent of the votes in the Iowa Caucus, and 45 percent of the primary votes nationally; Christie just 1.8 and 0.2 percent.

Christie ended up becoming Trump’s attack dog, famously helping to take down Marco Rubio in a primary debate just before dropping out of the race to endorse Trump. Christie was not picked as Trump’s VP in return for this, as many had expected him to be, nor was he even offered a high-ranking cabinet position. Trump, as we know, opted to stack his cabinet with businessmen, far-right types, Reince Priebus, and family instead.

Now, why did Christie do poorly in the primary? There are several possible reasons, but one theory, at least, has to be that he was taken down by the media. He was the (big) butt of many, many fat jokes, and even more Bridge-gate jokes. This seems like history now, but in 2013 and 2014— just when Christie’s future had otherwise looked so promising because of his weight loss, re-election, and love of Bruce—it was constant.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not so squeamish as to be against fat jokes of political figures. And I am not so naive to doubt Christie having been highly corrupt in Bridgegate. As his strong support of Trump has since displayed, Christie’s ambition has few limits.

The question is whether the media’s negative coverage of Christie was proportionate to his crime. I don’t have any data to say whether it was or was not, but, from my own recollection, I would guess that it was highly disproportionate. This is not surprising, really, since any event involving New York City — which Bridgegate did, of course — is likely to be covered more than it deserves to be. Moreover, the media tends to be at least somewhat left-leaning, and inhabited by skinny people, and so is perhaps not so disposed to be sympathetic to fat Conservatives like Christie.

Finally, the Republicans themselves did not rush to Christie’s defence in the wake of Bridgegate, at least not to the extent they typically do to their own (and, indeed, as they have since come to Trump’s, whose crimes—at least against morality, if not also against the law—are far worse). This may have been because both the Conservative establishment and Tea Party saw Christie as a possible threat in 2016. They were afraid of the wrong Northeasterner. But then, why should they have been worried about Trump, who at the time was still just a crazy celebrity making Youtube videos about how his people were trying to locate Barack Obama’s birth certificate?

Many people would say I am underrating Christie’s crime (and, maybe, overrating his political charisma). They may be right, of course. Obviously we don’t know what Christie’s odds against Trump would have been had there never been a Bridgegate, or if comedians did not find fat jokes amusing.

Is there a lesson here? I don’t know that either. (But I am sorry for asking so many rhetorical questions). If there is, it may go something like this: if you work in the media, and see a fat corrupt man get taken down, think twice about piling on. That fat corrupt man might be the only one capable of obstructing the bridge the devil must cross on his road into Washington D.C.




11 thoughts on “Was that joke on us?

  1. I’m not sure it’s about him being fat. I think it’s more about him having no base of support and being generally disliked by everybody.

    Politically, even without Bridgegate, Christie’s chances were always limited. After 2012, when the party was talking about a move toward the centre, Christie was considered to be among the favourites for the next nomination, as a pragmatic moderate who could appeal to Democrats, an experienced establishment insider who also seemed to have the common touch and a splash of appealing honesty. [His weight was probably an asset to him; it helped create the ordinary-guy image (for the guy with politics and law degrees, twenty years in public office and lobbying, a political career since he was a teenager, and nearly a decade as a US Attorney)]. The idea was that he’s be a sort of John McCain figure.

    But it turned out the party didn’t go that way. The establishment wing bet on Bush, not Christie. The extreme wing hated all of his policies*. His only asset was his reputation for honesty and goodness, and Bridgegate exploded that – it wasn’t just a scandal, it blew the kneecaps off his only real selling point. His only hope at that point was to sharpen his image and take on the rest of the party by appealing to a populist base who weren’t conventionally republican with his attention-grabbing, not-afraid-of-controversy style. Unfortunately for him, Donald Trump came along and stole his schtick – and did it bigger and better than he did.

    *For instance, he was the only major then-believed-candidate for 2016 who was pointedly NOT invited to the 2013 CPAC. Even by 2013, the party was already starting to think that maybe a pro-immigration, pro-gun-control, pro-common-core moderate who hugged Obama and called for more tolerance toward Muslims. He wasn’t just the most left-wing of the 2016 candidates, he was more moderate than any republican president since Eisenhower. On 538’s scale of political position, McCain rated about a 40, the average Republican in congress rated about a 50, Rand Paul rated around 65, and Chris Christie rated.. under 10. Hence he polled consistently the least popular of all the main candidates. In 2015, he had a net favourability among Republicans of only around +10, compared to Bush and Cruz at +30 and Ryan around +40.


    Regarding relative levels of corruption, I think it’s important to distinguish real corruption from conspiracy theories. Taking the Kaine-Shultz-Clinton triangle, for instance: there’s no ‘there’ there. For example:
    – Clinton didn’t pressure Kaine to step down as DNC chair. Obama did, because he wanted Kaine to run for the Senate instead. There’s no evidence Clinton had any role in Kaine’s decision.
    – there’s no evidence that Kaine “endorsed” Shultz as his successor.
    – even if he had done, he had no power in that regard, and Clinton would have had no reason to think that she’d necessarily have had ‘her’ candidate win the resulting position. Instead, the party chair is effectively chosen by the president, Obama. Clinton and Obama had been bitter rivals in 2008 and there’s no reason Clinton would have assumed Obama would back her campaign (particular since it was widely thought at that time that Biden, Obama’s friend and VP, might oppose her).
    – it’s not even clear that Clinton wanted Shultz in the position. Yes, she was her campaign co-chair. But rumour is clinton wasn’t that pleased with shultz, because she jumped ship from the campaign and remodelled herself as a fervent obama supporter the moment it was clear clinton had lost. If Clinton wanted a loyalist as DNC chair, she probably wouldn’t have chosen Shultz.
    – there’s no real reason to think that any support for Clinton by the DNC was because of a personal connexion with Clinton. She was the presumptive nominee who was never seriously challenged by a rival, and the only other guy vaguely in the race a) wasn’t a Democrat and b) was refusing to donate to or raise funds for the campaigns of democrat candidates. ANY dnc chair would have wanted Clinton to win quickly!
    – while the DNC was biased toward Clinton and in a few minor ways may have slightly leant toward her, there’s no evidence of any substantial interference in the primaries. Giving someone a sneak peak of some (completely expected anyway) questions isn’t rigging the election. A staffer improperly giving a candidate’s campaign some campaigning tips (that weren’t followed anyway) isn’t rigging the election.
    – specifically, it’s clear that nothing the DNC did actually substantively effected the foregone conclusion of Clinton’s landslide primary win.
    – even if they had ‘rigged’ that election in some way, it’s a private organisation’s internal protocols, not public office – it would be really, really hard to construct any serious criminal case. [I guess maybe you could try to prove ‘fraud’ on account of the party members not being fully informed of the system? But you’d then have to prove actual harm, which would be virtually impossible, I’d have thought.]

    On the other hand, in Bridgegate, people actually broke the law. They broke the law in a way that directly harmed people (potentially even causing a risk to life), and they broke the law in order to gain a political advantage (and to hurt a personal enemy). This is a clear-cut case of corruption and abuse of public office. It was criminal. And it was criminal in a way that appeared wilfully and petulently malicious, and it was criminal in a way that directly targeted the population of Christie’s own state. Two of Christies top aides have been sentenced to terms in prison (up to 2 years), while a third, having pleaded guilty, awaits sentencing. A fourth man, a political appointee of Christie’s, has been sentenced to a year of house arrest as a result of another scandal that came out in the process. A host of other corruption allegations have surfaced. Christie himself is facing trial and, if found guilty, up to 10 years in jail.

    Surely you can see why this is a bigger news story and a more egregious ethical violation that all the above handwaving about a half-decade-long conspiracy of someone maybe having encouraged someone to support the nomination of someone who might possibly five years later encourage people to improperly encourage others to vote for someone who would have won anyway in the internal elections of a private club?

    • Alright, yes, I do see that. I’ll get rid of that paragraph to avoid any further embarrassment. Obviously I’ve been letting my imagination and cynicism run way too wild here..and been reading too many right-wing websites. Thanks for the education.

      About Christie though, I think he may had more of a shot than you suspect. I agree he didn’t have a shot running as a centrist — that spot was always more likely to go to a Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. But he did have a spot as a tough Northerner with the common touch, the spot that Trump arguably ended up filling. (His pre-Bridgegate reputation for ‘goodness’ was always only partial; he had some very intense dealings with journalists before then that had let people know he could be ruthless). He could have been, like you said, a bit like a younger Mccain, and still a populist. He could have been the Fat Maverick. Had Bridgegate not happened, he may have done better in Iowa and New Hampshire, and then even maybe taken a sharp-turn to the right on immigration in order to compete in southern primaries. Of course, there’s no way to know. My other question remains, though: was the coverage of Christie proportional to his crime? I’m still not sure about that either.

      • Well, admittedly the success of Trump does prove it was possible for a brash populist with little allegiance to Republican ideology to somehow win the Republican nomination. I’m not sure, however, to what extent Trump represented a potential route to the nomination, and to what extent he was just a freak occurance. At the very least, I’m not sure Christie ever had the skills to do a Trump – I think Trump required a level of bragadoccio, flamboyant bridge-burning and flagrant assault on political norms that not even Christie could have matched. Or, at least, that Christie wouldn’t have attempted to match, since until Trump won by doing that it would have looked like suicide. Perhaps without Bridgegate he could have taken that route… but then again, without Bridgegate his campaign would almost certainly have been as the “electable” moderate with crossover appeal (which was his pre-bridgegate schtick an good reason, considering the margin of his re-election), and he’d still have been trounced by Trump, although potentially less thoroughly.

        [not being in the US, I can’t comment on the coverage levels!]

        One other thing I did mean to say… I’m always baffled at how the media assigns “outsider” tags. Rick Perry is an Outsider. 14 years as Governor of Texas – i.e. the longest-reigning governor of one of the largest states in the union. In public office since 1984. Came to power with the help of Karl Rove. Widely (if briefly) considered the favourite in two consecutive Presidential races. Supporting reviews in his campaign from the Wall Street Journal, the Heritage Foundation and Henry Kissinger.
        Whereas Marco Rubio? Insider. Only political experience in the lower house of florida’s state legislature, before being recruited as the Tea Party poster-boy candidate to take out the Republican’s own Governor in a Senate primary. Succeeded, and at the time of the ’16 nomination race was still a first-term senator. Such an insider!

        [Not targeting you for this, mind you. It is a common trope. But it just seems almost random who’s an ‘outsider’ and who’s an ‘insider’, and how the same person can change from one to the other so quickly.]

      • Yup, I agree with you completely there. There isn’t always logic or consistency between someone being seen as an insider or outsider. Some of it, I think, has to do with how well the politician is doing at any given time. So, for example, Perry was an insider on his way to the national stage, but then did such a bad job once he reached that stage (it’s hard to be a washington insider when you can only name two of washington’s branches of government) that he moved to the right for his run in 2016. (And, now that he’s actually in the washington government, as EPA chief, he has recently been moving back towards the centre). Rubio on the other hand rode to power as an outsider, at a time when the Republican outsiders were stronger because of obama’s big electoral win…but then Rubio moved to become an insider in order to try to win the 2016 primary (but then moved back towards being an outsider when it became clear that Jeb Bush was beating him, and Trump beating Bush).

        Another aspect of it may be the north-south divide. For a Republican, somewhat counter-intuitively, it may harder to be an insider and from the south. Someone with a strong accent, like Perry or Cruz, may be more likely to be an outsider than Rubio or Jeb Bush. (I could be wrong about this, but am I right in thinking that every Republican president apart from George W Bush had no accent?).

        Maybe I am making too much of the north-south thing, but that was also a big part of what prompted me to think of Chrisite. He, like Trump, was from the Northeast, and so was perhaps better placed to win the states the Republicans had to swing, in the north and in florida.

        Also, re-watching the clip of the Christe-Rubio debate moment, I really do think Christie is just a very talented politician. And Rubio too. I actually had originally thought that there would be a Rubio-Christie (or Christie-Rubio) ticket in 2016…maybe the real reason I wrote this was to get back at Trump for proving me to be so wrong then.

      • Actually, I think Christie is a pretty useless politician. He’s gone from winning re-election with 60% of the vote in 2013 (a 22 point margin), to having an approval rating of 15% in 2017. Most politicians could literally shoot someone in the street and not hit a 15% approval rating. That’s not what happens when you’re a very talented politician!

        I can see how someone with a non-DC accent might find it easier to be seen as an outsider. It happens here too, with class – people with regional or lower-class accents automatically seem more left-wing than those who don’t.
        But of course, I’m not American, so the “having no accent” thing… is difficult to wrap my head around! To me, a strong new england accent like the first Bush is still a strong accent – Californians like Reagan and Nixon are still pretty strong too. Let alone Ford’s Minnesota thing! I think the “least accent” from my point of view might actually be Carter – a mild southern accent sounds more natural to me than a northern one. [even LBJ, while noticeably American, still feels closer to accentless than someone like Bush; Clinton, on the other hand, is weird]. Kennedy is an interesting one – to a large extent he seems to have little accent, but then suddenly there’s a few vowels that are just totally bizarre. [just watching his oath of office, and “swear” is something like “sweeee-air”…].

      • Well, that approval rate is presumably just because New Jerseyians feel like he abandoned them to try to make it big nationally, and then embarrassed them in that attempt, and then sided with Trump out of his own personal ambition. It doesn’t really reflect on his “raw political skills”. I’d say that, out of the many Republicans who ran in the primary, only he and Rubio (and Cruz and Trump, if you like that kind of thing) had very much skill on the podium. (I personally liked Jeb’s style too, but wouldn’t say he has the same sort of skill).

        On the north-south thing, it hasn’t seem to be applicable to Democrats in the same way. There hasn’t been a northerner as a Democratic president since Kennedy or FDR. Maybe this is because Democrats feel they need to swing southern states to win, or maybe this is because northern voters feel that a southern Democrat must not be “one of the bad ones” like a southern Republican might seem to be.

        As for the accents of places like New England or California, I’m not sure that those accent differences matter at all when compared to the more significant north-south divide. Plus, in the case of George H W Bush, it may be that he succeeded in spite of his accent. He came to power because of Reagan and then lost his reelection attempt. His style of talking used to be made fun of quite a bit.

      • The north-south divide may be important to you, for sociological reasons, but linguistically the south is just one dialect among several. We outsiders can’t instinctively tell which strong accent is “no accent” and which is “oh god, he’s from a horrible place where the people sound like idiots!”. Just like Americans probably can’t tell what’s objectionable about Brummie, but appealing about Lancashire. [and certainly can’t tell what ‘no accent’ sounds like, judging by their attempts at it!].
        [I think that saying Bush came to power because of Reagan is sort of harsh. Bush had a major power base and popularity without and before Reagan – that’s why he was VP! He won an election, and although in hindsight we might say he rode Reagan’s coattails, we need to remember that that’s now how things normally work. Only four VPs in history have ever succeeded their President, other than through death or resignation – Adams, Jefferson, van Burren, and Bush. [a fifth, Nixon, eventually became President, but only after being out of office for eight years]
        Regarding Christie: well, you could say similar things about a lot of other Republican candidates, who made fools of themselves on the national stage, but only Christie has so catastrophically mishandled his electorate. Christie is at a level of popularity normally reserved for felons!

      • Well, I’m Canadian, so a semi-outsider I guess. But you shouldn’t have to be an insider to understand the importance of the north-south divide — there was a Civil War only a century and a half ago, after all. The accent divide would perhaps be better compared to an English/Scottish difference, rather than by comparing differences between English ones.

        I didn’t mean the Reagan thing as a shot at Bush. But I would hold to it all the same….it would be like if Biden had run in 2016 and won. Yes, Biden had his own political base and political history of course, but it still would have been hard to look at his victory as not being a “third Obama term”. With Bush this is even more true, given how Reagan dominated in elections in the 80s…and that the US economy was booming and the Soviet Union collapsing and all the rest. Obviously there is no way to know if Bush could have been president without Reagan though…

        On Christie, it still seems to me that, in spite of his unpopularity, he’s a talented speaker and would have been by far the most capable of the Republican primary contenders (excepting maybe Cruz) in filling something remotely resembling the support base that Trump got.

      • I do understand the political dimension of the north/south divide. But that doesn’t allow me to hear Northerners as having “no accent”.

  2. Seen2013 says:

    Just some of my 2 cents:

    Christie was doomed from the start:
    -Christie is a governor of a Presidential Blue-State that requires much of his campaign style to be Bush Republicanism that encompasses Progressive interests apparently referred to as ‘moderate conservative’ or otherwise ‘compassionate conservative’.
    -Christie’s campaign style is State or otherwise northeast coast centered campaign style.

    I can only view issues as Bridgegate given his political ideology and campaign style would mainly focus into the Governorship of New Jersey as he posed no substantial threat in the Republican Primary.

    “That fat corrupt man might be the only one capable of obstructing the bridge the devil must cross on his road into Washington D.C.”

    If they really wanted to do that, they’d have to reign in guilty until proven innocent justice practices and expansionist foreign policy. But, their entire donor class are heavily invested in both and thus very unlikely to even attempt it.

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