Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, was trolling for clicks.
It was a weekday morning in late October, and he was standing on the stage of the Moorestown Community House, where he was hosting a town-hall meeting. Ostensibly, Christie was visiting the South Jersey suburb to drum up support for his “tool kit,” a slate of legislative proposals designed to help the state’s municipalities comply with a 2 percent property-tax cap that goes into effect next year. Behind him hung a giant banner that read CHRISTIE REFORM AGENDA, and to his side stood a placard that counted down the number of days that remained for the Democratic-controlled State Legislature to pass those reforms. “With 54 days left, they’ve taken a two-week vacation,” the Republican Christie told about 300 people who had crowded into the community house before the fire marshal barred the doors. “I’m not taking a vacation. I’m going to keep on coming out and talking to all of you.”
But Christie was holding the town hall to do more than just promote his agenda; he was also trying to gin up some Internet content. While his fellow governors tend to use their official YouTube channels to show ribbon-cuttings and speeches, Christie, a former federal prosecutor who relishes the thrust and parry of political debate, has turned his into a video library of gubernatorial smackdowns—which, after just ten months in office, are already so numerous that his admirers are able to rank their favorites. Like the one he delivered at a town hall in Rutherford, where he told a public-school teacher complaining about her salary that “teachers go into it knowing what the pay scale is” and that if she didn’t like what she was being paid, “then you don’t have to do it.” Or another he dished out to a reporter who asked him about his “confrontational tone.” “You must be the thinnest-skinned guy in America,” Christie replied, “because you think that’s a confrontational tone? Then you should really see me when I’m pissed.”
Almost everywhere Christie goes, he is filmed by an aide whose job is to capture these “moments,” as the governor’s staff has come to call them. When one occurs, Christie’s press shop splices the video and uploads it to YouTube; from there, conservatives throughout the country share Christie clips the way tween girls circulate Justin Bieber videos. “The YouTube stuff is golden,” says Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review. “I can’t tell you how many people forward them to me.” One video on Christie’s YouTube channel—a drubbing he delivered to another aggrieved public-school teacher at a town hall in September—has racked up over 750,000 views.
Now in Moorestown, Christie was hoping to create another such moment. After some introductory remarks, he opened the floor to questions. “For those of you who have seen some of my appearances on YouTube,” he cautioned, peeling off his suit jacket as he spoke, “this is when it normally happens.” Then, recognizing the man who was first in line at the microphone, Christie began to grin. “This could happen right here, ladies and gentlemen! This guy at times has the tendency to annoy me … Get ready! If you have your own cameras, start rolling!” But the man proceeded to lob Christie a softball, asking why the Legislature wouldn’t pass the governor’s education proposals. And the subsequent questions from the audience only got softer, as it seemed that everyone at the town hall was a supporter. “I want to take this moment to say two words to you, and that is thank you,” said one woman, not even bothering with a question. Christie did his best to pepper his responses with bombastic shots at his absent political opponents—“This is the crap I have to listen to,” he said of some of their criticisms—but the performance soon became like watching a prizefighter shadowbox.
Finally, after more than an hour, it was time for the last question. A middle-aged African-American woman stepped to the microphone. “I did not vote for you,” she said in a strong voice, “and I reject your unwillingness to reconsider the tunnel.” The previous day, Christie had announced he was killing a proposed train tunnel under the Hudson River between North Jersey and Manhattan because his state’s share of the construction costs was too high. “I reject the notion that we can’t afford an investment,” the woman said. “I want the governor to address this issue of investment.”
“Sure, okay, well, here we go,” Christie replied, before the woman started to interrupt him. He held up his hand. “Hold on! I’ve listened, so now let me answer.” Christie is the rare politician who is obese—his weight probably approaches 300 pounds—and, up on the stage, he now appeared to loom even larger. Staring down at the woman, he launched into a lengthy, at times pedantic, explanation of the tunnel’s funding formula, the likelihood of cost overruns, and the budgetary calculations that led him to conclude that New Jersey simply didn’t have the money to pay for the project. Each time the woman tried to interject, he cut her off—“Look at me, please,” he instructed her at one point—until eventually, she fell silent and stood awkwardly as he continued his monologue.