Everybody Hates Chris

The late right-wing Boston talk radio host David Brudnoy had a nasty term–“incompetent competence”–that he would use to describe progressive African-American op-ed columnists who were, according to him, only in their positions because of affirmative action. After viciously attacking these columnists–specifically, then-Boston Globe columnists Derrick Jackson and Patricia Smith and then-Boston Herald columnist Leonard Greene–for allegedly obsessing over racial inequality in their columns, he would insist that these columnists could not possibly have been hired on pure writing talent, that they had to have been beneficiaries of diversity initiatives, and that they represented “incompetent competence” since they were being promoted by their employers as world-class writers even though they supposedly weren’t. (I can’t recall what Brudnoy’s excuse was for white Boston columnists who seemed to lack talent…)

The offensive origins of the term notwithstanding, I can’t help thinking that “incompetent competence” is a fitting way to describe the presidential campaign of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie–a presidential campaign widely expected to end after this Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary. The rise and fall of Christie is one of the most fascinating stories of the 2010s: how could a man with so much perceived potential never actually reach it?

There was a time when Christie was seen as the future of the Republican Party, a man with alleged appeal to conservatives and independents, a man who supposedly could have beaten President Obama like the proverbial rented mule had he run in 2012. He certainly had some GOP moneymen convinced of his abilities five years ago:

Some of Iowa’s top Republican campaign contributors, unhappy with their choices in the developing presidential field, are venturing to New Jersey in hopes they can persuade first-term Gov. Chris Christie to run. The entreaty is the latest sign of dissatisfaction within the GOP over the crop of candidates competing for the chance to run against President Barack Obama in 2012.

Bruce Rastetter, an Iowa energy company executive, and a half-dozen other prominent Iowa GOP donors sought the meeting with Christie, the governor’s chief political adviser, Mike DuHaime, told The Associated Press. The get-together is set for the governor’s mansion in Princeton, N.J., on May 31…

Christie, who was elected in 2009 and has drawn national attention for his tough talk and battles with Democrats, has explicitly and repeatedly rejected the idea of running for the White House. Yet that hasn’t deterred these Iowans.

“There isn’t anyone like Chris Christie on the national scene for Republicans,” Rastetter told the AP. “And so we believe that he, or someone like him, running for president is very important at this critical time in our country.”

Back then, Christie also had the support of David and Charles Koch, as investigative journalist Brad Friedman revealed that September:

On the morning of June 26, Chris Christie, New Jersey’s flamboyant, tough-talking Republican governor, appeared on NBC’s Meet The Press. He then jetted out to Colorado, delivered a keynote speech at Charles and David Koch’s ultra-exclusive seminar at the Ritz-Carlton resort near Vail, and returned home the same night, all without breathing a word about his adventure to his constituents…

With security extraordinary on the seminar’s opening night—audio speakers around the periphery of the outdoor dining pavilion blasted out static to thwart eavesdroppers—David Koch introduced Gov. Christie as “my kind of guy.” (The two had previously met in private at Koch’s New York City office, he revealed.) Before long, seminar attendees were roaring with laughter as Christie regaled them over dessert, telling them how, in his first weeks in office, he’d exercised extraordinary executive powers to impound billions of dollars in planned spending. (“The good news for all of you and for me,” he said, “is that the governorship in New Jersey is the most powerful constitutional governorship in America.”)

Friedman also noted that the Kochs apparently influenced Christie’s decision to pull New Jersey out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a successful Northeastern cap-and-trade program:

The governor demurred, as usual, when Koch audience members called on him to join the 2012 race. But he did seem to be laying groundwork for a possible future presidential run. Koch seminars, after all, are loaded with the type of donors presidential candidates crave. And in his introduction, David Koch lauded Christie as a “true political hero.”

“Five months ago we met in my New York City office and spoke, just the two of us, for about two hours on his objectives and successes in correcting many of the most serious problems of the New Jersey state government,” Koch said. “At the end of our conversation, I said to myself, ‘I’m really impressed and inspired by this man. He is my kind of guy.'”

Koch went on to describe Christie as a “powerful voice for fiscal sanity in a state that has long been known for liberal politics, big-government policies, and its ever expanding public sector.” He lauded the governor’s “courage and leadership” in pushing through, days earlier, “a remarkable bill that reforms state employee health insurance and pension payments, bringing them more in line with the private sector”; the bill in question took away the right of public workers to collectively bargain for health benefits.

The crowd cheered loudly as Koch, whose estimated $22 billion personal fortune derives from his family’s oil refinery empire, described Christie’s unilateral withdrawal, on behalf of New Jersey, from a regional cap-and-trade market created by 10 northeastern states to curb industrial greenhouse gas emissions. (He neglected to mention that, in announcing the withdrawal in late May, Christie had acknowledged in no uncertain terms that climate change is real and that human activities contribute to it. “It’s time to defer to the experts,” he’d said.) There was an extended ovation when Koch, just before turning over the floor, expressed his hope of seeing Christie “on a larger stage where, God knows, he is desperately needed.”

Christie wasted no time in serving up the red meat. “The opponents of what we want to try to maintain in our country are fighting harder than ever,” he said.

Of course, that was before Christie ran afoul of the far right by appointing a Muslim judge to the New Jersey Superior Court (conservatives actually thought the judge would adhere to Sharia law). That was before Christie delivered what was widely regarded as a self-serving keynote speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention. That was before Christie again defied the deranged dogmatists in his party by giving President Obama props for helping the Garden State in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. That was before Bridgegate.

Christie ought to thank Jeb Bush for taking the media spotlight away from his own inept campaign. Watching Christie these days, you wonder what exactly people saw in him five years ago. Where’s the charismatic, tough-talking Republican superstar? We just see a loudmouth egomaniac.

I’ve said some fairly harsh things about Christie over the years, but now that his presidential campaign is just days away from being suspended, I can’t help wondering what’s going through his mind right now (besides where to get lunch). Does he regret missing his moment in 2011? Perhaps he could have defeated Mitt Romney for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Perhaps he could have actually defeated President Obama.

Five years ago, Chris Christie was well on his way to becoming an icon in American politics. Now, he’s a universally loathed figure, having alienated conservatives with his alleged obsequiousness to Obama after having alienated progressives with his actual obsequiousness to the Kochs.

Last month, in response to a New Hampshire resident who asked him why he didn’t head back to the Garden State immediately after its latest brush with the consequences of climate change, Christie responded: “I don’t know what you want me to do. You want me to go down there with a mop?”

He might need that mop for his tears, after he reflects upon just how badly he blew it over the past half-decade. When he announces the end of his campaign, he might as well quote Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront: “You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.”

UPDATE: More from the Boston Globe, Washington Post and Media Matters.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.