In anticipation of his expected presidential kick-off announcement, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Sunday put out a video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?t37&v4gFOz—UlHbM) trying to explain his personality in positive terms, as an over-abundance of candor. He tells a story about his mother who told him never to hold back, to always say what was on his mind. He ends by saying, “And when you ask about my moral compass that’s it. That’s it.”
What’s it? Candor is welcome, but it tells us nothing about Christie’s moral compass — his concern for others, his kindness, his values, his priorities, etc. The line, like a lot of campaign rhetoric, makes no sense whatsoever. Bad people can be candid. Candor, which can just simply mean unburdening oneself, is not the same as honesty — which involves truth-telling. At another level, the video seems unduly defensive. We all know he has a problem coming across as overbearing or even as a “bully,” but those concerns cannot be passed off as just an excess of candor. You can quietly, politely tell us what you are thinking.
Frankly, Christie’s video doubles down on an over-reliance on image and personality — one that got him in trouble when the bridge scandal cropped up, and when he was seen a few too many times berating audience members. Rather than make excuses for his personal style, Christie would be well advised to adopt the following five-pronged approach.
First: The best answer to the “bully” attack is for Christie to emphasize his record of accomplishment in a deep blue state with a Democratic-controlled state assembly. Bolstered by a court ruling on pension fund contribution, he can make the case that he has controlled spending and not raised the state income tax. Those accomplishments, in conjunction with school reform and drug courts make for a solid record. (Making the case that his accomplishments are better than those of the governors and ex-governors from Wisconsin, Florida, Texas and Ohio is a different matter.) He should move away from apologizing for what he says and how he says it, and focus instead on what he has already done.
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Second, if Christie wants to tell it like it is, he can start with his opponents. He can tell Gov. Bobby Jindal and former governor Mike Huckabee they don’t get to pick and choose what Supreme Court cases they need to follow. Tell Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, it is a farce to suggest we are going to change the Constitution to elect judges — and in any event that’s a sure way to make them more political. As he has done before, he can go after Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., for being a scare-monger on the National Security Agency and Cruz for suggesting we can beat the Islamic State from the air. He can challenge the freshmen senators who would not support military action to enforce the red line — and now complain we did not act against Syria’s Bashar Assad. He can call out Donald Trump’s xenophobic policy nonsense, and denounce those who refuse to see immigration and trade are essential to our growth and prosperity. (Had Christie stuck to his guns, he might have also deplored the pandering and misinformation on Common Core that opponents offer.) In short, some of that candor might be welcome in the case of debunking the nonsense coming from his own side, in addition to the White House and Hillary Clinton.
Third, Christie is a former prosecutor and, when it comes to Clinton, should come right out and say it: her conflicts of interest, refusal to follow the administration’s email rules, destruction of emails, erasure of her server and refusal to turn over all her emails are unacceptable and should be thoroughly investigated. He can in essence litigate the case against Clinton and make the argument that someone who behaves in this fashion cannot be the chief executive, cannot control the Justice Department and cannot be trusted to faithfully execute the laws.
Fourth, Christie can be the grownup on policy. No, we can’t keep sequester and pay for an adequate military. Nope, a flat tax isn’t going to be fiscally or politically acceptable. Nope, we can’t keep Social Security just the way it is. Instead of offering the voters cotton candy, he can offer meaty polices and specific solutions, as he did on entitlement reform. He can put out a specific and achievable tax reform plan, a strategy for defeating the Islamic State, a formula for reducing head count in government, a standard for assessing whether regulations are economically beneficial and so on. He must try to be specific about his goals. The fewer unrealistic promises he can make, the better.
Finally, instead of talking theoretically about upward mobility and poverty, Christie should make the cornerstone of his campaign his efforts to reduce crime and improve schools for poor, inner city residents of New Jersey. His roll-up-his-sleeves approach to Camden and Newark should become his model for the country, and he should make clear he fights unions and bureaucracy not because he likes to, but because poor families need him to fight for them. That’s a message he can communicate with passion and link to the future of the Republican party.
Will it be enough? Well, he is still a long shot to be sure. And he might forget about Iowa and put his cards, as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., did, on New Hampshire. If he breaks through there and others stumble he might fight his way into the top tier. It’s not likely, but in a race with 15 or more candidates, he would at least have a fighting chance.
© 2015, The Washington Post