Chris Christie, en route to a blowout victory Tuesday in New Jersey, is not everybody’s idea of a dreamboat, though he’s bold, bright and looks like he could make a tight squeeze through the Panama Canal.
It’s not his girth. We’ve become a nation of fat people. Besides, he’s lost weight and looks like what passes in some precincts as svelte. But he’s still a taste acquired with considerable difficulty west of the Delaware River. Nor is it that he looks like a man who, if he doesn’t know exactly where the bodies are buried, might know which landfill to dig up first. He just doesn’t look presidential, and appearances count, even with people who say they don’t.
Stereotypes are almost always unfair, but they’re the images that stick in a voter’s mind. Bill Clinton, even after winning two terms as president, has never quite outgrown the image of Bubba who got his first new pair of shoes when he jumped off the truck from the turnip patch.
Bubba has actually kept his common touch while walking with kings, parlaying his presidency into millions in the aftermath, but he’ll be remembered decades from now more for his nocturnal skill in surviving wifely wrath and the shotguns of angry husbands than for his statecraft in a time of national crisis.
Life is not fair, as we all know. A man can’t always help how he looks, even with a clean shirt, neatly pressed pants, a fresh shave and a good haircut. Even Al Gore, born to Washington privilege, had to have help with his “earth tones” in his race for the White House.
Mr. Christie has achieved immense popularity at home with wisecracks from the street and a brash Jersey touch that speaks to the common man in Hoboken. However, he has further acquired the reputation of a man who can’t quite be trusted by his friends.
Lyndon Johnson applied a simple standard to measure friends and allies against: “He’s a man to go to the wall with.” A Christie friend and ally might look up from the wall, just before taking the blindfold and the last cigarette, to see the governor carrying ammunition to the firing squad.
If he expects the Republican faithful to anoint him in 2016, including the Tea Party Republicans whom he will need for a presidential nomination, he’ll have to hope they will have forgotten how he gave the Jersey bounce to Mitt Romney in the final weeks of the 2012 campaign.
Gratitude is a wonderful thing to practice and a sight to behold in the wake of a great disaster like Hurricane Sandy, but the governor could have said his thanks on behalf of New Jersey in a day or two. Instead, he trotted behind President Obama for what seemed like weeks, a hound dog looking for another bone with a little meat on it. Mr. Romney was probably doomed, anyway, but to a lot of Republicans it looked and smelled like treachery.
They’re not likely to forget it.
No one begrudged Mr. Christie his photo-op with President Obama in the mud and rubble of the storm, or his exploiting the free media in anticipation of a race for re-election as governor. A Republican in a blue state needs all the help he can get.
Even a man who had held back his endorsement of Mr. Romney until long after the fight for the nomination was settled, flirting with getting into the race himself, might be forgiven. The man who was invited to speak to the party’s national nominating convention and used so much of his time to brag about his considerable self that he forgot to mention the name of the party’s nominee might be forgiven.
Maybe one of those sins and commissions could be cast into the sea of mercy, but not all of them all at once.
A new book about the 2012 campaign, “Double Down” by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, tells how Mr. Romney thought he wanted Mr. Christie as his running mate until his vetting committee took a closer look. The vetters discovered a big-spending bully with a sharp tongue and a lot of baggage. He was right for Hoboken, Joe Biden with smarts, but still risky for Terre Haute.
Establishment Republicans love him for repeating establishment pieties. “I’m in this to win,” the governor told reporters on his campaign bus Monday, “because if you don’t win, you can’t govern.” Being nice and respectable, with deference to the pieties, are the Republican virtues. They’re rarely the virtues that win elections.