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What Is Chris Christie Doing Right?

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Christie in the seaside township of Brick last month.  

In the days before July 4, Christie was besieged by rain. “The wettest June on record in New Jersey, since they’ve been keeping records,” he moaned to a crowd in Seaside Park on a rare sunny day. Christie and his wife, Mary Pat, and their children had filmed television commercials trying to tempt tourists to the rebuilt time-shares and resorts, the governor sitting at the beach, windswept and happy. “Stronger Than the Storm” was the slogan. But the rain and the devastation seemed to have kept visitors away, and as far away as Nantucket, the word was that summer rentals were pricier because people were steering clear of the Jersey shore. “I’m hoping it’ll mean a very good Fourth of July weekend,” Christie said, scanning the sky. But later that week, in Ortley Beach, the rain would be pouring down again. “Three and a half years as New ­Jersey governor … I’ve had hurricanes, blizzards. I’m wondering, When are the locusts coming?” He considered. “We’ve had the cicadas …”

Politicians, generally speaking, have a problem: “It is hard to communicate,” as State Senator Joe Kyrillos, Christie’s ally, puts it. It is not so hard for the governor. Christie has a genius for combative clarity; Trenton, in his mouth, is a theater of grotesques, of corrupt and deluded and self-interested politicians, enemies of progress. He has a tendency to become so overwrought (“Can you guys please take the bat out on her?” he once groused to reporters, about a state senator named Loretta Weinberg, then a 76-year-old widow) that the aggression has become an event in itself. Christie’s lap-band surgery may have made him healthier, but it has not discernibly altered his physical appearance; he still looks like a bully, still deploys menace as if it were a form of seduction. His crowds come, in part, for the cartoonish pleasure of watching a grown man blow a gasket. But Christie is cannier than that. He is not unmanageably angry so much as he is a mechanism for managing anger, for channeling it and dispersing it tactically.

“All right, so this will be the entertaining part for all of you,” Christie said when he reached the microphone, “where I take questions from the press.”

What the press wanted to know about, that day, was same-sex marriage. Christie had vetoed a marriage-equality bill in 2012, but polls show most voters in the state disagree with him. “You guys are obsessed with the issue,” he grumbled. Christie has said that he would defer to the results of a referendum (though none is imminent) but that legislators and courts should not hastily alter “a 2,000-year-old institution.” On the stump, he treats the question as if it were a test of the personal character of politicians; he emphasized his own consistency—“you can agree or disagree with me”—while attacking Democrats, in this case the State Senate president Steve Sweeney, who had the bad judgment to abstain on the issue when it came up for a vote three and a half years ago. (“The worst mistake I’ve made as an adult,” Sweeney told me, somewhat miserably.)

“Here’s a guy who, on this issue, his principles are like that flag that blows around in the wind, okay?” Christie said. “It makes me laugh, it’s absolutely ridiculous.” Christie went on, “I mean, if there’s anything that is more indicative of a lack of principle on an issue—you don’t vote yes or no? What’s that, maybe?” There are moments in Christie speeches when a logical line has ended but you get the sense that the energy has not yet dissipated, in himself or in the crowd, and that whoever speaks next will be a target. In this instance, it was a reporter who wanted to ask a follow-up question. Christie turned to him: “That’s my answer. So if you don’t like it, go ask someone else.” It took six Springsteen songs before the crowd let him leave.

There are few living politicians so firmly identified with a place that you get the sense, watching them deliver a speech at an elementary school, that the school will one day be named for them. You get that sense watching Christie on the Jersey shore. This is because of the storm, which destroyed nearly 350,000 homes and left tens of thousands of families still without one, and the way in which Christie has been able to channel both the sense of loss and the energetic spirit of repair. In other states that have suffered disasters—Texas and its wildfires, Oklahoma and its tornadoes—Republican governors have stuck to a libertarian line. But as Christie moved down the shore last month, he staged press conferences not with individual heroes but at the sites of businesses that had applied for relief grants, dwelling on the details of coming deadlines. He also dwelled in the rubble. In Sayreville, touring the damaged homes with Jon Bon Jovi, he took in stories—the surging ocean, flooding so high that it fully submerged the cars parked in the streets. At a beach-supplies rental store, he assessed the scale of the damage. “Two and a half feet of water coming in and out of here twice,” the governor said, marveling. “And the sinkhole.”


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