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What Is Chris Christie Doing Right?

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The contrast was on display last week in the fight he picked with Rand Paul. The senator from Kentucky, having watched Christie denounce libertarianism, called him the “King of Bacon,” presumably referring both to his pleas for immediate federal help after Hurricane Sandy and to his weight. Christie had pointed out that New Jersey is a “donor state,” taking only 61 cents for every dollar it sends to Washington, while Kentucky takes back $1.51. (No acknowledgment from Christie that this is owed not to New Jersey’s superior character but to its good fortune of existing next to the great economic buoy of Wall Street, while Kentucky is near no economic buoy at all.) “So if Senator Paul wants to start looking at where he is going to cut spending to afford defense,” Christie had said, “maybe he should start looking at cutting the pork-barrel spending he brings home to ­Kentucky.” For Christie, the villain is always specific: not government, not socialism, not impersonal historical forces, but one moron in particular—the teachers union, or Steve Sweeney, or in this case Rand Paul, the libertarian ophthalmologist, high-mindedly denouncing government while his state is on its dole. “He’s not the first politician to try to use me to get attention,” Christie said later, dismissing Paul’s slight. “And I’m sure he won’t be the last.”

What Christie is doing when he starts arguments with other Republicans—and it is telling that what looks very much like a presidential run has begun with a sequence of fights—is offering his party the chance to preserve its anger, while trading in its revolutionaries for a furious institutionalist.

“We know that this is where our heart is, and it is the heart of New Jersey, too,” Christie said the week before last, sweating and crammed into a small restaurant in Newark’s Ironbound district. His father had come from the neighborhood, he said, and he talked about the images of fifties Newark, the tight, ethnic communities that live now mostly in nostalgia and food tours: “That’s what we want New Jersey to be, from Cape May up to Bergen County.”

The heart of New Jersey, yes, but also the scene of its greatest racial brutalities and the source, thereafter, of its deepest feelings of regret. In many prosperous North Jersey towns, you will still find first-generation migrants from Newark, some who shun what the city has become, some who express guilt at its abandonment. Christie’s own working-class parents left Newark in 1967, borrowing money from his two grandmothers to make a down payment on a house in Livingston, which was then on its way to becoming a rich suburb. This was also the year of the ­Newark riots, which means the Christies were part of one of the greatest episodes of white flight in American history.

Almost no one from Newark votes for Christie, and yet the city has been symbolically important to him: He spent the first day after his election as governor at a charter school in the North Ward, addressing students in sweater vests, and has made the major cross-party political alliance of his career with the city’s Democratic reform mayor, Cory Booker. Two years into his term as governor, Christie held a town-hall meeting in the Christian Love Baptist Church in Irvington, just outside Newark. “Everyone, everyone expected it would be explosive,” said Ron Christian, the church’s politically connected pastor. “I think his staff was a little shaky.”

When most white Republicans—when many white Democrats—visit a black church, the encounter is suffused with a toxic pandering, an oppressive self-­consciousness of difference. Christie acknowledged no difference at all. He simply asserted that he was a Newarker. And then he tried to wrap the audience into his own theater of outrage. They should be furious, he said, that the ­“education Establishment” would brag about the accomplishments of New ­Jersey’s suburban schools while telling inner-city parents, “We’ll get to you later.” In these schools, “children and their families are being cheated, and their futures are being determined by their Zip Code,” Christie said. “I know in my heart that if I had been left to the schools in Newark, that there’s a very good chance I wouldn’t be standing here as the governor of New Jersey … How many children are sitting in Newark today who have both the brains and the heart to be governor but will never be, because we didn’t have the guts to stand up and say, ‘This system needs to be changed’?”

For Christie, Newark is always both a nostalgia and an aspiration tour, a way to stress what the city has in common with the rest of the state rather than what keeps it from catching up. “If he were really concerned about Newark, he’d be like [former Republican governor] Tom Kean. He’d spend his time in the South Ward, the Central, the West Ward, where the minorities live and where there is gangbanging, and he would address the criminal-justice problem,” says Newark state senator ­Ronald L. Rice. “He just does not do it. He doesn’t care.” But Christie does not need to convince suburbanites, as Kean did, that the inner city is a controllable problem, that the watch stations and barracks are in place. What he needs from Newark is something more modern, something that explains his intense connection with Booker: He needs to be able to prove to a more liberal state that a historical loop has been closed and that his own anger can become a politics of hope.


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