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Opinion: Is ‘Sit Down and Shut Up’ Christie’s Fatal Misstep?

The governor likes to paint himself as blunt and outspoken, but did his mouth get away from his mind in Belmar?

carl golden
Carl Golden

Call it his “sit down and shut up” moment, but judging from the largely unfavorable reaction, Gov. Chris Christie’s outburst directed at a questioner at an appearance in Belmar on the second anniversary of Hurricane Sandy may have damaged the brand he’d like to carry into presidential politics next year.

It wasn’t so much that Christie used harsh language to silence a critic -- New Jerseyans have become accustomed to that -- but his strident dressing-down response portrayed for many who saw it played over and over on national TV an undisciplined out-of-control individual unable to rein in his temper when challenged.

His repeated sarcastic use of the word “buddy” conveyed the disdain he so obviously felt toward the questioner, who held a hand-lettered sign aloft and interrupted the governor demanding to know why relief funds for those affected by Sandy were slow in coming two years later while the governor embarked on campaign tours around the country.

The governor bluntly dismissed him by suggesting that he had worked diligently and often out of public view to help families who lost homes and possessions to the storm, while the protestor had done nothing of consequence and was interested only in performing before a TV camera.

Christie built his reputation and achieved national attention with his pugnacious style, warning audiences in advance that any confrontation, impertinent comments, or questions directed his way would be met with his “Jersey attitude.”

He used “idiot” frequently to describe anyone -- including reporters -- who posed inquiries or made comments he felt inappropriate. He flung insults at legislators -- “jerk” and “numbnuts” come immediately to mind -- while rudely dismissing their questioning his actions.

When the Legislature’s chief fiscal analyst differed with the administration’s revenue projections, the governor -- in rapid-fire order -- accused him of being a tool of the Democratic Party, suggested he had neither the intellect nor qualifications to hold his job, and dubbed him the “Dr. Kevorkian of the numbers.” The analyst’s research was later found to be more accurate than the administration’s.

Initially, the media was entranced, capturing the governor’s personality in fairly adoring terms, eagerly awaiting the next blowup aimed at whoever stood in the way at the moment. His public putdowns often elicited appreciative chuckles from his audience, even though some winced inwardly.

His rant in Belmar, however, marked something of a turning point.

Published reports quickly appeared, questioning whether the governor’s combative style had worn thin and referring to his propensity to verbally hammer opponents while avoiding any direct response to the issues.

One columnist wrote that Christie was in danger of transforming from an action figure to a cartoon character. Others in the media wrote sympathetically about the protestor.

For someone mentioned as a potential U. S. President and leader of the free world, his temperament and frequent lack of restraint became issues for debate.

It is, critics said, one thing to cut down someone at a public forum, such as Christie’s town hall meetings, but it is a different matter entirely to bring the same reaction to discussions with leaders of other nations to whom the subtleties and nuances of diplomacy are essential ingredients in the peaceful resolution of problems.

Hurling invective at presidents or prime ministers of other countries over serious policy differences -- including going to war -- is not regarded as particularly helpful to America’s global standing.

Dealing successfully with 535 members of Congress, any number of whom at any given time and on any given issue could thwart the desires of a president, won’t be achieved through the liberal use of “idiot,” “jerk,” and “numbnuts.”

Goading opponents into temper eruptions is as common in Washington as the daily commute to the office. Should Christie decide to enter presidential politics, for instance, it is certain that his competitors for the nomination will attempt to provoke him into the kind of outbursts he’s displayed as governor.

The seemingly endless stream of candidates’ debates will be turned into a rhetorical minefield as Christie’s opponents lure him into stepping on one in the hopes it will produce a highly damaging televised newsbite and raise reservations about his suitability for office.

Christie has been unapologetic, offering his opinion that people appreciate a politician who is willing to speak his mind, unafraid to challenge critics, and return rhetorical fire with the same intensity used by opponents.

“I am what I am,” he’s said often, and doesn’t plan to change.

Not surprisingly, his style has drawn the lion’s share of media attention and has overshadowed the side of his personality that can be charming and solicitous when the occasion warrants.

His concern for young people who’ve become addicted to drugs is clearly genuine and deep. His drive to substitute treatment and rehabilitation for incarceration not only reflects his compassion but is worthwhile public policy as well.

In the days and weeks following Hurricane Sandy, he spent endless hours consoling those who’d suffered tremendous losses, hugging them and comforting frightened and bewildered children in particular.

There are many who feel his caring and calming presence in the immediate aftermath of the storm was Christie’s finest hour.

It is, though, his displays of anger and belligerence that have led to the public perception as measured in polls as a bully, as someone who insists on others agreeing with him and berating them when they don’t.

He may have crossed the line of public tolerance with his outburst in Belmar, and his future public appearances will be watched closely to see whether he dials back his style and adopts a more measured, if not gentler, tone.

Allowing “sit down and shut up” to become his signature moment will be a major drag on his future.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

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