Can Chris Christie Tame His Inner Bully?

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The beast, momentarily released

Chris Christie has been so far ahead for so long in his race for reelection — he led by 18 to 36 points in the campaign's final polls — that it's easy to overlook just how mammoth a victory he's headed for tonight. Christie will likely post one of the biggest margins for a Republican in New Jersey since World War II, despite a solidly conservative record in a state that's trending Democratic.
 
But he's still facing a much greater threat than Barbara Buono or Ted Cruz: his own temper.

Christie's campaign brilliantly portrayed the governor as tough but bipartisan. And far more than tax caps or tenure reform, it used reminders of his response to Hurricane Sandy to reinforce his image as a can-do executive; as Christie's ads put it, relentlessly, "When tragedy struck, he was there every step of the way." After Sandy, surveys showed that voters saw Christie as smart, strong, and a "fighter" rather than a "bully," and these perceptions have persisted through the campaign and buoyed his overall approval ratings.
 
Which is why Christie's encounter on Saturday with an elementary school teacher named Melissa Tomlinson should set alarm bells clanging for his fans.
 
Toward the end of a rally in Somers Point, New Jersey, Tomlinson asked the governor why he keeps calling New Jersey schools "failure factories."
 
"Because they are!" Christie screamed back. For good measure, he jabbed his finger at Tomlinson — the image instantly became a classic on Twitter — adding either "I'm sick of you people" (according to Tomlinson) or "It's never enough for you people" (according to Christie). "Do your job," he then snapped before boarding his bus. All the while, Christie's wife, Mary Pat, stood next to him with an odd smile frozen on her face, apparently because a local news camera was pointed at her.

Now, the governor often likes to throw a little red meat to his supporters at the end of rallies. But this latest brawl was weird — or maybe just a bit too telling. With a lead greater than his neck size, Christie has spent most of the campaign acting like a jovial rock star — answering the phone at Hot Dog Johnny's in Belvidere, New Jersey, to cite just one example. Yet when asked a perfectly reasonable question about education policy, he just couldn't resist the urge to verbally slap around a younger woman who runs an after-school program.
 
This particular incident is too little, too late to materially affect the outcome of today's election. But Christie better be careful. Tearing a local kindergarten teacher a new one isn't quite as attractive as barking at idiots on a boardwalk. Further randomly unhinged moments could reverse those "fighter"/"bully" numbers, threatening the goodwill he has shepherded since Sandy. And the dirty little secret of the Christie administration is that beyond his personality, the governor doesn't have a lot to fall back on.
 
Christie has pursued the austerity economics that have earned Scott Walker much stronger opposition in Wisconsin, but with even worse results. He has cut corporate taxes by $600 million a year and sent more than $2 billion in tax credits to particular businesses. This hasn't created jobs — New Jersey ranks 44th in the nation in job creation and 47th in wage growth since Christie took office, according to Bloomberg, which recently asked, "With an economy like New Jersey's, why the love for Christie?" But it did leave the state strapped for cash. So Christie made sure the state could defer many of its long-overdue pension obligations; New Jersey's payments will more than triple by 2018, after Christie is out of office. He cut aid to municipalities, many of which have laid off police and first responders. He canceled the Hudson River tunnel project and started borrowing heavily from the state's Transportation Trust Fund. He has raided more than $700 million from its clean energy funds. And he tried to take money from its affordable housing fund, too, even as New Jersey's foreclosure rate climbed to the second highest in the country.
 
Meanwhile, Christie won a cap that limits localities to increasing property taxes by no more than 2 percent a year. Unfortunately, he also slashed property-tax rebates, so the median New Jersey family has seen its property taxes jump by 18.6 percent since he took office — "much higher" than under Jon Corzine, according to NJ Spotlight, a local news service. And Christie cut nearly $1.3 billion from education in his first two budgets, double-slamming schools hit by the tax cap, though the state later restored some of those funds.
 
It's stats like these that led Star-Ledger columnist Tom Moran to call Christie "America's most overrated governor." And on the issues, the citizens of New Jersey seem to agree: His approval rating is only 42 percent on the economy, 38 percent on taxes. Just 11 percent of New Jersey residents told one September survey their quality of life has improved since Christie took office.
 
As long as Christie can run on his persona, road-testing his theme of "leadership" for a fawning national media, he doesn't have to worry about the issues. He was happy to keep any agenda he might have for a second term utterly invisible during this campaign. And he'll be happy, too, if tonight's results don't disturb the status quo in New Jersey, leaving him free to bash the Democratic Establishment while he cuts deals with Democratic bosses. (Word is that Christie has directly helped three Republican state Senate candidates, which is interesting, since the GOP needs to flip four seats to gain control of the chamber.)
 
But the moment his anger turns uncontrollable or sour, Christie risks losing his personal appeal to the independents, especially the downscale whites and suburban women he desperately needs. Non-tea-party voters who aren't strongly affiliated with either party want a leader (as governor or president) who can shake things up precisely because they want politics to work better, not because they are angry, per se. Christie's bullying matters because if he's a jerk pure and simple, he will register as destructive rather than constructive. And then it's a long way to fall to 42 or 38 or 11 percent.
 
So watch out if reporters do start to press Christie about his record, or all the questions Mitt Romney never got answered when he considered making Christie his running mate, or the ill-fated corruption investigation he launched against Senator Bob Menendez two months before Election Day in 2006. Because this campaign never quite resolved the question Democratic operative Bill Burton asked about Christie over the weekend: "If his feet were really put to the fire, could he keep from lashing out?"