Let's Stop The Handwringing About Chris Christie Being A 'Bully'


It feels like this happens every few months: Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) will yell at some voter at a public event, and then various liberal commentators will remark on how his off-putting personality is an obvious problem in a presidential election.


This Saturday, the unlucky voter was a special education teacher in Somers Point, New Jersey, who confronted Christie over cuts to public education spending.

And today's handwringing commentator is Kevin Drum.

Back in early 2012, when the chatter about Christie's presidential chops first started, I remember thinking that I just didn't believe it. Obviously Christie has some ideological baggage, but that wasn't my big reason for skepticism. It was his famous bullying of ordinary citizens.

There is, of course, a problem with this analysis: Christie does a lot of this stuff, and has for years, and he's still very popular in the place where voters have the most exposure to him: New Jersey. He's about to get re-elected by a landslide.


Are New Jersey's voters a bunch of masochists who love being yelled at? The handwringers always have an answer for that, which is more or less "yes":

Sure, it went over great in New Jersey, and even among the national media it seemed like a bit of fresh air: a politician willing to say what he really meant even if it wasn't entirely PC... I guarantee you that the American public will very quickly become repelled at the sight of a Jersey loudmouth bullying ordinary citizens who have the temerity to disagree with him.

And this is where I slam my head into my desk. Why do national reporters so often talk about New Jersey as if its electorate consisted entirely of Teresa Giudice and The Situation?

New Jersey is one of the best-educated, highest-income, most upscale states in the country. We don't associate Greenwich, Connecticut with loudmouths; why would we expect them to play especially well in Saddle River, New Jersey?

Demographically, New Jersey is basically similar to Massachusetts, but with slightly higher incomes and somewhat more racial diversity. Like New Jersey, Massachusetts has townies. But when Massachusetts politicians run for national office, reporters don't pull out Good Will Hunting and fret that the local pols are "too Massachusetts" to sell nationally.


The truth is that Christie's style is less specific to New Jersey than most people (including Christie) would have you think. His approach isn't typical for New Jersey politicians; nobody would describe Christie Todd Whitman or Jon Corzine or Cory Booker as a "Jersey loudmouth." And brash, confrontational, off-script, sometimes angry politicians can thrive outside New Jersey: just look at Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel or London Mayor Boris Johnson.

Christie's confrontational personality can appeal to all sorts of electorates so long as he trains his anger in the right places.

When Christie yelled at that teacher yesterday about how education spending levels will "never be enough" for New Jersey's teachers' unions, he was doing so in a state that spent $19,291 per pupil on K-12 education last year - more than any state except New York and Vermont and 74% more than the national average. New Jersey's educational outcomes are excellent, but Massachusetts achieves slightly better outcomes while spending 20% less.

New Jersey residents feel overtaxed because they are; depending on how you measure it, the state is at or near the top in state and local tax burden in the U.S., and Christie's ire toward groups that demand ever-higher taxes and spending is popular with the electorate. Christie's demands for school spending restraint, even (successfully) urging voters to reject local school budgets en masse in 2010, have been popular.

This weekend, when I watched Christie give two stump speeches, the angriest part of his remarks each time came when talking about the complete breakdown of the political process in Washington, again matching the sentiment of the electorate. So long as Christie keeps training his anger in the right place, Christie will be O.K. What national liberal reporters don't get is that "towards teachers" can be the right place, both politically and substantively, to train that anger.