May 1 2011

Chris Christie, the ‘Churchill’ of New Jersey

Republic governor's union-bashing style wins media praise

Chris Christie--Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/David Shankbone

Chris Christie–Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/David Shankbone

New Jersey’s most important TV star isn’t on MTV’s Jersey Shore. Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s YouTube showdowns with his critics—especially the state’s public school teachers—have made him a fast-rising Republican star, lionized by the likes of the Weekly Standard (4/26/10), National Review (4/16/10), Glenn Beck (5/14/10) and George Will (4/22/10). Mere months after his election, pundits were weighing his presidential chances in 2012, and Rush Limbaugh (2/12/10) was declaring: “Is it wrong to love another man? Because I love Chris Christie.”

That enthusiasm is not confined to the right-wing echo chamber. The NBC Today show (10/20/10) told viewers that “with Christie, what you see is what you get. A 48-year-old father of four who loves Bruce Springsteen and is trying to rescue his troubled state.” To the New York Times (2/22/11), Christie has exhibited “in-your-face frankness and nonstop aggressiveness” as a leader who has “torn into the financial problems he faced with gusto,” and Time’s Nancy Gibbs (2/28/11) wrote that “It’s tempting to see in New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie a Churchill for our times.”

Newsweek (12/6/10) explained dramatically that “Christie leads like the prosecutor he once was, identifying the crime, fingering the culprit, and methodically building a case designed to convince a jury of his peers.” The magazine went on to note, as if it were a surprise, “Even the mainstream media have begun to fall for the hefty governor.”

Christie has become the media’s symbol of the get-tough Republican austerity rebellion. To the Washington Post (2/23/11), the “plain-spoken Christie has emerged as a leader of a growing group of governors that is attacking yawning budget deficits by facing down public employees and promising not to raise taxes.”

The uprising against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker offered ABC reporter Jonathan Karl the opportunity to emphasize that Christie was on the case first. Karl (This Week, 2/20/11) announced that while the debates over state budget cuts were “the Tea Party’s moment…this is also the Chris Christie phenomenon. Will politicians be rewarded for making tough choices?—again, something I don’t think we’ve ever seen happen.”

But almost entirely lost in all the attention to Christie’s rhetoric is any serious discussion of whether his record lives up to the hype, as if those details were a mere footnote. A Washington Post article (10/31/10) led with the conventional Christie storyline—he “has done what Republicans on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail are promising: to cut spending to reduce the budget deficit.” Several paragraphs later came a few caveats: “The budget is hardly the conservative panacea that Christie has cast it as. The budget was balanced by deferring $3 billion the government was to pay into its state pension system and eliminat[ing] a tax rebate homeowners were supposed to receive.”

Continuing the practice of underfunding the pension system and ending one tax break for homeowners—in practical terms, a tax hike—would hardly conform to the media-manufactured image of Christie. And a New York Times piece (2/23/11) noted that Christie’s plan to shift a $500 million payment to the pension fund from the upcoming fiscal year to the current one “would allow the governor to say he has cut spending for a second year in a row. Otherwise, spending would actually grow slightly.”

One might think that journalists would scrutinize the fiscal record of a politician whose public persona relies so heavily on his commitment to austerity. A few have put difficult questions directly to Christie (e.g., ABC’s Jake Tapper on This Week, 7/25/10), but corporate media seem to prefer to cover his rhetoric and political maneuvering.

Take Christie’s speech at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, where much of the media attention focused on what he said about Social Security. “You’re going to have to raise the retirement age for Social Security,” Christie explained. “Whoa! I just said it, and I’m still standing here. I did not vaporize into the carpeting.” That earned him praise from the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank (2/17/11), who explained that this was more evidence that Christie isn’t a “blow-dried politician who says whatever the voters want to hear. Christie isn’t pretty, and he tells ugly truths.”

Of course, for something to be an “ugly truth” it would have to be true, and as Extra! (1-2/05, 10/10) has repeatedly shown, there’s absolutely no need to raise the Social Security retirement age. But declaring that workers should work longer is Beltway Truth Telling; after playing a clip of Christie’s speech, Face the Nation’s Bob Schieffer (2/27/11), instead of questioning Christie’s totally inaccurate premise, asked him, “Should other people be saying that?”

NBC host David Gregory (2/20/11) declared Christie “got rave reviews in part because of his plain language about taking on issues like Social Security.” Gregory called Christie’s rhetoric “the kind of plain talk that people are responding to,” a stark contrast to Democrats who “want to take Social Security off the table right now in terms of dealing with that debt reduction.”

For some reporters, Christie’s bullying tactics are what make him special. In a lengthy profile, New York Times Magazine reporter Matt Bai (2/24/11) wrote that Christie’s “acid monologues” have made him “one of the most intriguing political figures in America,” someone constantly misunderstood by his critics. He has, according to Bai, picked the right enemy:

What makes Christie compelling to so many people isn’t simply plain talk or swagger, but also the fact that he has found the ideal adversary for this moment of economic vertigo. Ronald Reagan had his “welfare queens,” Rudy Giuliani had his criminals and “squeegee men,” and now Chris Christie has his sprawling and powerful public-sector unions—teachers, cops and firefighters who Christie says are driving up local taxes beyond what the citizenry can afford, while also demanding the kind of lifetime security that most private-sector workers have already lost.

Union leaders are “howling” and the teachers’ union is “apoplectic,” according to Bai; Christie, meanwhile, “has a preternatural gift for making the complex seem deceptively simple.”

When the head of the New Jersey Education Association made the point that Christie’s bully pulpit gave him an advantage in making his case, Bai snidely retorted that she may have “taught high-school math for 29 years, but her grasp on civics sounded a bit shaky.” If the union’s case is that the media seem to take Christie’s side, Bai’s piece is strong evidence that they’re right.

Such coverage hinges on the notion that Christie is popular with people besides reporters. “Despite the tough choices, his approval ratings keep going up,” explained NBC reporter Jamie Gangel (Today, 10/20/10). Newsweek’s Andrew Romano (12/6/10) advised that the White House might want to look to Trenton for help: “Obama is struggling to recover from the worst midterm rout in 65 years—while Christie, 48, is more popular than ever.”

As Juli Weiner wrote at (12/21/10), Christie’s job approval ratings, then at 46 percent, lagged slightly behind Barack Obama’s—a politician that few journalists would currently characterize as being particularly popular.

But to hear Bai tell it, the broader move to attack public sector workers is good politics:

Not only are public employees’ contracts no longer untouchable for any politician who wants to stay in office, but it turns out that the opposite is true; taking the fight to the unions is a good way to bolster your credentials as a gutsy reformer with voters who have been losing faith for years in public schools and government bureaucracies.This, more than anything else, is the lesson that Chris Christie has impressed on his contemporaries.

It’s a lesson corporate media have been eager to affirm.