Everybody thinks they know Chris Christie. With his big mouth and bigger personality, the New Jersey governor has had no problem attracting national attention. But false narratives are already growing up around him — and are at risk of multiplying as we head toward the 2016 presidential race. So let’s set the record straight on a few myths.
1. He’s a RINO.
Yes, Christie has hung out with President Barack Obama — twice. The president’s first visit, six days before the 2012 election, included the instantly famous bro-hug on the Atlantic City tarmac. During the second visit, in May, Christie high-fived Obama after a football-toss game and then joined him for a rally.
But Christie has governed New Jersey as a mostly by-the-book Republican. He refused to raise taxes on millionaires. He rejected a longtime allocation for Planned Parenthood clinics five times. And he provided $2.1 billion in subsidies and grants for corporations.
While the governor touts his bipartisan credentials, he doesn’t agree with Democrats on their liberal causes: If it were up to him, there wouldn’t be same-sex marriage (he vetoed a gay-marriage bill before dropping a futile court challenge), nor a higher minimum wage (he opposed a successful ballot measure raising it). Christie has also been vocal about the alleged scourge of public unions, and he bows to the education reform gods.
RINO (Republican in name only) watchers will say he hasn’t rolled back gun-control laws, but New Jersey is so anti-gun that any such attempt would only destroy his political capital. And while he recently signed a bill allowing in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants, so did Texas Gov. Rick Perry — and no one calls him a RINO.
2. He’s a bully who can’t keep his anger in check.
YouTube doesn’t lie. The governor, ice cream cone in hand, did go after a heckler on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, where Snooki and The Situation once rumbled. He did call an assemblyman "numbnuts" and an assemblywoman a "jerk." I’ve been a target, too. When I asked in December about a mysterious traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge, Christie laughed me off, sarcastically joking that he set up the traffic cones himself, before talking over my follow-up.
But the governor has more than one bullet in the rhetorical chamber, and he knows when to keep the gun in the holster. After the release of those bombshell documents indicating that his closest advisers ordered the traffic jam, Christie talked at a news conference for nearly two hours and didn’t yell at a single reporter.
He has steadfastly avoided questions on controversial policy matters, such as the defunding of Obamacare and immigration reform. Asked about the pope’s criticism of trickle-down economics — fraught territory for the most high-profile Catholic Republican in the country — Christie kept his mouth shut: "No reaction."
At the same time, he has Clintonian charm. He handles schoolchildren better than any politician I’ve seen, and he makes adults cry at his town hall meetings when he recounts his dying mother’s words to him: "There is nothing left unsaid." Christie is emotional. Dismissing him as an out-of-control bully misses the full picture.
3. He’s unhealthy.
When Christie said he first found out about the Bridgegate emails after his morning workout, it provided yet more fodder for the endless snark about his weight.
But a letter Christie released from his cardiologist — after a challenge from his fit gubernatorial opponent last fall — showed that he doesn’t have serious health issues. His hypertension is under control, and he "has adapted a healthy lifestyle," exercising four days a week. His cholesterol clocks in at 139, which is borderline high, but his blood pressure is 110/70, which is good. He was hospitalized one muggy day in July 2011, but he came out a few hours later and took all our questions about his long-term asthma.
As far as weight, it’s safe to say he’s dropping pounds. Since his lap-band surgery nearly a year ago, he has looked noticeably slimmer each successive month. "You look good, governor," New Jerseyans tell him. "I’m trying," he says.
4. His shtick doesn’t play well outside New Jersey.
No one in Iowa will vote for Tony Soprano for president.
So goes the conventional wisdom about how a foul-mouthed tough guy from Jersey just doesn’t have the right personality to appeal to Middle American voters. But my experience watching Christie beyond New Jersey tells the opposite story.
After announcing in October 2011 that he wasn’t running for president, Christie endorsed Mitt Romney and then flew to New Hampshire to become Romney’s most high-profile surrogate. At their first rally together, two female hecklers started yelling about Christie killing jobs. The crowd roared, knowing what was coming.
"Something may go down tonight," Christie said, "but it ain’t going to be jobs, sweetheart." The comment shocked some pundits who thought it was sexist. But I was in the crowd, and that line got more applause than any other. Several Republicans told me afterward that they wished Christie had been running instead of Romney.
The following summer at the Republican convention, Christie spoke at a breakfast for the North Carolina GOP. In persuading the crowd to work hard for Romney, Christie didn’t get folksy — he got Jersey.
"Now I don’t want to get all nasty this early in the morning," he said. But "you don’t want an angry Chris Christie coming back to North Carolina." He then referred to the Mafia: If North Carolina doesn’t go Romney, he said, "we’re going to give you some Jersey-style treatment. You don’t want that now."
So many North Carolinians got up from their scrambled eggs to mob Christie at the door on his way out that the rest of the breakfast program had to be delayed.
5. Bridgegate diminishes his chances in 2016.
The best news for Christie in the wake of the George Washington Bridge scandal is that it hit right after his reelection and more than 700 days before the Iowa caucuses. But the calendar isn’t the only reason political prognosticators should be careful about writing Christie off as a GOP presidential player in 2016.
Consider that most of his potential presidential opponents have avoided slamming him on the controversy. Or that a New Hampshire poll released Thursday showed him leading all Republican comers — by a larger margin than in September. Most of those questioned had heard of Bridgegate, and 14 percent of GOP voters said it made them like him more.
Yes, Christie was scorned in a (hilarious) "Born to Run" parody by Bruce Springsteen and Jimmy Fallon. But there could be worse things for a Republican with base troubles than to get raked through the coals by the media elite.
Christie’s political advisers say interest was high for fundraisers he’s hosting this weekend in Florida, and national donors are calling to express support. The road to 2016 may now have some more traffic on it, but if Christie’s name doesn’t make a damning appearance in a subpoenaed Bridgegate document, he will have the cash and connections to mount a strong bid for the presidency.
Matt Katz has covered Chris Christie since 2011, first for the Philadelphia Inquirer and now for WNYC and New Jersey Public Radio. He wrote this for The Washington Post.