“Telling It Like It Is” — That’s Chris Christie’s campaign slogan, revealed the day before he formally announced his candidacy for president. It’s meant to evoke his brash persona, which is the biggest advantage he has in a crowded GOP field.
Christie is the 14th Republican candidate to announce, and is not expected to be the last. But with trailing poll numbers and an iffy record in New Jersey, where he is in his sixth year as governor, he will be a hard sell for GOP primary voters. It makes sense, then, that his announcement speech Tuesday morning touted bombast over bonafides, rhetoric over record, and a promise of a clean campaign that runs contrary to everything we know about the bellicose, secretive governor.
His speech opened with “We Weren’t Born to Follow” by Jersey rockers Bon Jovi, whose blue-collar, hard-won affirmations provided a fitting soundtrack to the event. (The announcement closed with “Who Says You Can’t Go Home?” by the same group.) Christie’s address was rooted in his humble origins, beginning with his choice of venue — the gymnasium of Livingston High School, from which he graduated in 1980 — and segued to his family history: a tale of blue-collar success and the American Dream realized, with Christie himself embodying the dreams of his parents and grandparents.
As in interviews he’s given, he was light on policy and the specifics of his accomplishments as governor. He mentioned “reforming tenure” and “reforming pensions and health benefits,” but didn’t delve into details, possibly because he has a messy and contentious track record on the subject. Other than a line about fixing the country’s “broken entitlement system” and “encouraging businesses to invest in America again” through deregulation, he didn’t say much about what his platform would be. (He may not have much to say, period, other than the word “reform.”)
What he did play up was his persona — imperious, truth-telling, no-nonsense Christie, who tells it like it is and has the ability to work with the other side to get things done.
“Both parties have failed our country,” he said, his voice rising. “Somehow now ‘compromise’ is a dirty word. If Washington and Adams and Jefferson believed compromise was a dirty word, we’d still be under the crown of England.”
Befitting the high-school setting, he drew parallels to high-school concerns — namely, popularity contests. He said that he was not running for prom king, and that respect was more important than love. “I am not looking to be the most popular guy who looks in your eyes every day and says what you want to hear,” only to turn around and do something else, he said.
And yet his critics allege that he’s done exactly that – on pension reform and gun legislation, Christie has shifted, backflipped, and outright lied, and always managed to modulate his style of confrontation and candor — to suit whatever position was most expedient at the time.
His pledge to run a campaign that wouldn’t “tear people down,” is quite a leap for a man who is widely known for his humorous, often nasty takedowns of others – YouTube is littered with videos of him calling out those who criticize him or ask what he thinks are silly questions, calling them “idiots” or “stupid” or worse.
And when he’s not belittling those asking the questions, Christie has been known to simply not answer them.
He promised a campaign free of pandering, spin, or focus group-tested answers: “You get what I think whether you like it or not or whether it makes you cringe every once in a while. A campaign when I’m asked a question, I will give the answer to the question asked, not the answer my political consultants told me to get backstage.”
Christie’s bravado about not being run by political operatives belies the fact that he’s a career politician who obviously knows how the game is played.
“I mean what I say and I say what I mean – that’s what America needs right now,” he said in his closing remarks. He promised to be the kind of candidate who would be open – in his eyes, heart, ears, and mind. Ironic, since his administration isn’t known to be forthcoming, and it’s hard to imagine that as president he’d be any more “open” than he is now.
Surrounded by supporters, against the backdrop of the American flag, and flanked by his family, Christie choked up as he recounted why he does what he does: “I wake up every morning knowing that I have an opportunity to do something great. That’s why this job is a great job and that’s why the president of the United States is an even greater job.”
Photo: Chris Christie at Livingston High School in Livingston, New Jersey, the morning he announced he was running for president. Screen capture via ChrisChristie.com