The Trouble with Christie’s Tough-Guy Pitch
Policy + Politics

The Trouble with Christie’s Tough-Guy Pitch

If the speech he gave Tuesday announcing his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination is any guide, Chris Christie seems to think he can run for the Oval Office based on the strength of his personality alone.

Speaking in front of a friendly crowd at his alma mater, Livingston High School in New Jersey, the twice-elected governor of the Garden State was long on personal anecdotes and on promises to be decisive and forthright, but short on even general guidelines about the policies he would pursue.

With his wife and four children standing behind him throughout his nearly 30-minute speech, working without a teleprompter and apparently without notes, Christie spent the first third of his remarks in an effort to soften some of the rough edges of his public image. He spoke of his parents and his two grandmothers, their struggles and successes. He spoke of his wife, and his children and his love for the hometown he returned to for his announcement.

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But after a while, the Christie that national audiences have gotten used to emerged to hammer home a promise to bring the tough, truth-telling persona he has long cultivated to Washington. D.C. He sought also to contrast that image with a characterization of President Barack Obama as weak and indecisive.

“I have spent the last 13 years of my life as U.S. Attorney and governor of this state fighting for fairness and justice and opportunity for the people of New Jersey. That fight has not made me more weary, it has made me stronger, and I am now ready to fight for the people of the United States of America,” he said. "America is tired of hand-wringing and weakness and indecisiveness in the Oval Office. We need to have strength and decision-making and authority back in the Oval Office, and that is why today I am proud to announce my candidacy for the Republican nomination for president of the United States of America.”

As good as Christie was at delivering applause lines, he never did more than dip a toe into the substantive issues that the country would expect a chief executive to address. At times, he seemed poised to get into some policy specifics, such as the few lines he delivered addressing entitlement reform. 

“We need a campaign of big ideas and hard truths and real opportunity for the American people,” he said. “We need to fix a broken entitlement system that is bankrupting our country. We have candidates who have said, ‘We can’t confront this because if we do we’ll be lying and stealing from the American people.’”

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Put aside, for a moment, the fact that no candidate in his right mind would say anything remotely like that. Christie's windup on the issue veered away into metaphor: “Let me fill everybody else in. The lying and stealing has already happened. The horse is out of the barn. We’ve got to get it back in and can only do it by force.”

The idea of doing things “by force” gets to the heart of Christie’s sales pitch. He casts himself in the role of the man who can take Washington by storm, shoving aside the mealy-mouthed politicians, cutting away the spin and red tape to get things done for the American people.

The trouble is, history offers a long list of men who have come to the White House believing that through sheer force of personality they could bend the Washington Establishment to their will. The list of those who have succeeded is notably shorter.

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The idea that Christie could stroll into Washington and begin fixing intractable problems “by force” is, to put it kindly, an imaginative stretch. For one thing, the federal government is designed specifically to prevent it — something the man Christie is hoping to replace could tell him.

For another, President Christie would quickly find that he was far from the only outsized personality wandering around D.C. Pushing around the likes of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell isn’t the same as shouting down an elementary school teacher at a town hall meeting.

Christie has a long road ahead. In recent polls, he is lingering near the bottom of the GOP field of more than a dozen candidates, and unless he can raise his numbers in relatively short order, the one-time Republican front-runner may have a hard time qualifying for a spot in the upcoming Republican primary debates. 

The first test of Christie’s as a presidential candidate will be to earn enough support to grab a spot on the debate stage. It’s not clear he’ll be able to do that by force. 

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