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Back in the 1970s, a Jewish organization commissioned a poll to investigate anti-Semitism in the United States. The poll included several open-ended questions. One asked, “Is there anything in particular you like about Jewish people?” The answers were recorded verbatim.
One respondent — a worker from Pittsburgh — answered, “What I like about them is that they are hardworking, aggressive and know how to get ahead.” The next question asked, “Is there anything in particular you don’t like about Jewish people?” His answer: “They’re too pushy and aggressive.”
The puzzled interviewer asked, “Isn’t that what you just said you like about them?” The respondent answered, “Yes. What I like about them is also what I don’t like about them.”
Now, consider New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican who just won a landslide re-election in a Democratic state. And a frontrunner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
What people like about Christie is his forcefulness. He is not a guy to be trifled with. People like that in a leader.
What people don’t like about Christie is his bullying. He punishes anyone who gets in his way.
Consider, after a Democratic state senator crossed him, according to the Washington Post, she claims the governor asked his people “to take the bat out on me.” (She now keeps two baseball bats in her office, one with Christie’s name on it and one with her name on it.)
People don’t like leaders who get what they want by bullying.
Forcefulness and bullying are different sides of the same quality. What people like about Christie is also what they don’t like. A Republican communication strategist told the Post, “If Governor Christie were anyone else, he’d have to change the way he does things. But because this is the defining part of his persona, he needs to stick with it.”
The good turns into the bad. That’s not unusual in politics. During his first term, what people liked about President George W. Bush was his resolve (“The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”). During his second term, what they didn’t like was his stubbornness. In 2006, when Bush spurned the bipartisan Iraq Study Group’s recommendations for a new course in Iraq, the Democratic National Committee called him “the most stubborn man on earth.”
President Bill Clinton’s empathy got him elected in 1992. He “felt your pain” at a time when millions of Americans were hurting. Incumbent President George H.W. Bush was famously out of touch. But when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke during Clinton’s second term, his empathy turned into slickness (“It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is”).
President Jimmy Carter’s moralism had the same effect. It was a welcome breath of fresh air after the Watergate scandal. During the “malaise” crisis of 1979, however, it turned into sanctimoniousness. (“Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.”)
Then, Barack Obama’s thoughtfulness was a great relief after the impetuousness of President George W. Bush. But too much thoughtfulness can make a leader seem ineffectual. William Shakespeare, the greatest observer of human nature the world has known, made just this point with “Hamlet.”
Ronald Reagan’s political journey, however, was in the opposite direction. At first, Reagan’s radicalism made voters wary of him. Yet, by the end of the 1980 campaign, they began to admire Reagan’s conviction — a quality missing from Carter, the wishy-washy incumbent. Reagan turned the bad into the good.
It’s called crossing the line. There’s a fine line between conviction and radicalism, between moralism and sanctimoniousness, between thoughtfulness and ineffectualness, between resolve and stubbornness.
Christie may have crossed the line between forcefulness and bullying. What won Christie 60 percent of the vote in November is now turning off most New Jersey voters. According to a new Monmouth University poll, Christie’s favorability rating among New Jersey voters has dropped from 70 percent a year ago to 44 percent.
Christie’s misfortune is that the good turned into the bad before he could even run for president.
The odds of the controversy dying seem slim. Huge numbers of Americans have to deal with traffic problems. The idea that someone would deliberately cause a four-day traffic jam is outrageous.
As an act of political retribution, it doesn’t even make sense. Thousands of innocent people were hurt. The politician reportedly being targeted — the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, who failed to endorse Christie’s re-election — had no idea that that this had anything to do with politics. Or with him.
If the person you are taking revenge on doesn’t even know it, what’s the point?
It’s hard to believe that Christie knew nothing about what his aides were up to. There will now be investigations, lawsuits and possible criminal charges. The staff members accused of setting the plot are likely to cooperate with prosecutors who hold the threat of prison over their heads. They will talk, and they may say things that could doom Christie’s political prospects.
The story of Christie’s fall has great dramatic potential. It could make for the best New Jersey political movie since “American Hustle.”
How about John Goodman starring in “Trafficking in Revenge’’?
Bill Schneider is professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University and a resident scholar at Third Way.
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