In Saturday’s Republican presidential debate, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tried, and failed, to pin down his main adversary of the evening, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. He pointed out how badly Christie’s state had fared, economically, under his leadership suffering, among other things, nine credit rating downgrades and extremely slow job growth.
Christie, without addressing the issue, swatted aside Rubio’s criticism as a “drive-by” shot at his record. But on Sunday morning, in an interview on Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace brought it up again, and this time it wasn’t as easy to avoid.
So, Christie resorted to a form of deflection familiar to anybody who has watched the classic comedy Animal House. In the film, when a crew of debauched frat brothers is finally called to account before a university court, and confronted with incontrovertible evidence of their misdeeds, one of the leaders of the group stands up to address the judges.
How can they blame a whole fraternity for the actions of a few individuals, he demands.
“For if you do, then shouldn't we blame the whole fraternity system? And if the whole fraternity system is guilty, then isn't this an indictment of our educational institutions in general? [I] sn’t this an indictment of our entire American society?”
Then, reaching his soaring finale, he concludes, “Well, you can do whatever you want to us, but we're not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America!” With that, he leads the entire fraternity out of the courtroom, humming the Star Spangled Banner.
Christie didn’t storm out of the studio, but rather than defend his record on jobs and growth – arguably the worst of any governor in the aftermath of the Great Recession – he instead went on the attack against Wallace.
“I’m not going to let anybody insult the people of New Jersey, who have worked hard to bring our state back,” he said.
“By the way, in the midst of all that, too, we were hit with the second worst natural disaster in American history that devastated our state,” he said, in reference to Hurricane Sandy. “In light of that, to have this comeback that we’ve had in 2015 is extraordinary and the people of New Jersey deserve great credit and I am honored to lead them. And I’m not going to let Marco Rubio or anybody else, even you my friend, insult the people that I represent.”
A bemused-looking Wallace noted that he hadn’t said a word about the people of New Jersey, but was referring to the state’s economic performance under Christie’s leadership. But Christie again tried to turn Wallace’s question into an assault on his constituents.
“It’s their state. It’s not just my state. It’s their state. Like it’s our country. And I’m not going to allow people to insult the effort of the people of New Jersey,” he said.
At this point, Wallace essentially gave up and moved on. But it’s worth noting that Christie’s straw man argument is the kind of cheap rhetorical trick that Christie himself would have pilloried an opponent for making on the debate stage.
Imagine a Democrat trying to defend against attacks on President Barack Obama’s economic record by claiming that any criticism is tantamount to insulting the citizens of the U.S. If that were a valid argument, the Republican presidential candidates would have to abandon half of the material they use on the stump.
Depending on the results in tomorrow’s New Hampshire primary, we may not have Chris Christie to kick around much longer anyhow. But his state’s economic performance under his leadership is a vulnerability, he knows it, and at the moment, he doesn’t seem to have a good response to critics who point it out.