New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's long and deliberate effort to be seen as a moderate, bring-'em-together politician is one hundred percent gone. He is now and will forever be known as a bully, and if he wants to run in 2016, he might as well start working it into campaign ads.
Earlier this month, New Jersey political types gathered for a roast of former Gov. Brendan Byrne. But it was the man that currently holds the seat that ended up taking much of the heat from the evening's presenters, as The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza indicates in a lengthy new report on Christie's path to the governorship. Lizza describes an interaction between comedian Joy Behar and Christie, video of which he posted on Tuesday.
After another barb, Christie interrupted her. “This is a Byrne roast,” he said. He stood up and tried to grab her notes. The audience laughed awkwardly. “Stop bullying me,” Behar said as he sat down.
What's interesting in that anecdote isn't Behar's accusation of bullying. It's Lizza's portrayal of the audience's laughter. Lizza was in the room, so he has a better sense of the audience's reaction. But in the video clip, the laughter doesn't appear to be awkward — it seems authentic. If it was authentic, then Lizza is seeing bullying even where none exists. And that's the future Christie faces.
After Christie traveled to Las Vegas two weekends ago in an effort to earn the support of the Republican Jewish Coalition, a little-noticed story emerged from his now-famous apology for referring to the West Bank and Gaza Strip as "occupied territories." Fortune contributor Richard Miniter describes an encounter between Morton Klein, president of Zionist Organization of America, and Christie after the comments. Klein confronted Christie after the speech, asking him not to use the term in the future. Christie responded dismissively, with a tone that "radiated anger and impatience," Klein told Miniter. "Christie 'didn’t want to listen,' Klein said. 'He was really unpleasant, condescending, rude, dismissive. He was bullying me. I’ve never had a politician speak to me that way.'"
Lizza's article has other examples of how readily people now critique Christie's persona. According to former governor and one-time Christie ally Thomas Kean, Christie has "a way of distancing allies," Lizza writes, "and he and Kean have had a falling out" since Kean introduced him on election night last year. Now, Kean readily presents a different Christie than the one that accepted that impressive victory. "He makes you feel that your life’s going to be very unhappy if you don’t do what he says," Kean now says about Christie.
Even last year, calling Christie a bully didn't have as much resonance. Christie's opponent in his reelection, Barbara Buono, created — but never ran — the ad below, in which she explicitly calls him a bully. The campaign pulled the ad in part because the public perception of Christie as a tough guy was seen at the time as a positive.
If Christie decides to run for office in 2016, that persona will be unavoidable. Christie's Republican opponents will not hesitate in the way that Buono did, because the label has stuck. No matter what he does, he will be seen as being aggressive and challenging, regardless of how aggressive or challenging he's actually being.
Lizza posted another bit of ephemera from his reporting on the Christie story, a note sent to Christie by the granddaughter of a state senator. In one of his many public intemperate moments, Christie demanded that the New Jersey press for once "take the bat out" on Loretta Weinberg, a 79-old politician. The note, below, asks Christie to "stop [bullying] [everybody]."
Here's the note Sen. Loretta Weinberg's granddaughter wrote after Christie asked press to "take the bat out on" LW. pic.twitter.com/rkeIuk2UVe— Ryan Lizza (@RyanLizza) April 8, 2014
At this point, he might. But it won't change the public perception one bit.