The Christie Collapse And A Media Dream Dashed

Chris Christie “reduces me to a 14-year-old girl at a Beatles concert.” MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, December 20, 2010.

“Chris Christie is someone who is magical in the way politicians can be magical.” Mark Halperin appearing on Meet The Press, November 10 2013.

It's hard to miss the aura of a letdown that surrounds the news coverage of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's long-awaited announcement of his presidential candidacy. Set to address supporters today at his alma mater of Livingston High School in New Jersey, Christie enters a very crowded Republican field of White House hopefuls and does so with some extraordinary baggage, which explains the Hail Mary flavor of the coverage, which comes with almost a tinge of sadness, or what-could-have-been regret.

Detailing his “long-shot presidential bid,” Politico noted it now revolves around a “bank-shot strategy, a narrowly tailored approach that leaves Christie with little room for error.” The Associated Press headlined its article, “As He Launches 2016 Bid, Christie Embraces Underdog Role.”

Starting with the Bridgegate revelations in January 2014, Christie has been riding a year-and-a-half worth of bad news that has translated into his lowest approval ratings ever in New Jersey. Christie hasn't just drifted off course. His political standing has completely collapsed to the point where it's not clear whether he will even qualify to be among the 10 candidates on the stage of the first Fox News-sponsored debate.

Yet of all the announced Republican candidates -- and those still queuing up this summer -- Christie without question enjoyed the most unique and encouraging relationship with the Beltway press corps. For years there was an almost tribal affection for Christie and his bullying personality among the Acela media class. (aka The “liberal” media.)

It was a strange, cozy relationship that's worth recalling on the eve of his candidacy. Rarely has the political pundit class bet so heavily on a particular politician. And rarely has a bet paid off as poorly as the media's wager on Christie.

Note that Christie is scheduled to get his Fox News close-up courtesy of Sean Hannity tonight, but the love is mostly gone from that once-simmering Fox bromance. (See here, here, and here.) Christie's relationship with the right-wing media never really recovered after he committed the cardinal sin of reaching out to Obama in the immediate wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 when New Jersey was in desperate need of federal aid.

Meanwhile, according to reports, Christie's new campaign slogan will be “Telling it like it is,” a phrase practically handcrafted over the years by his Beltway media fan base of journalists who touted Christie as a deeply "authentic" politician--a "straight shooter." (New Jersey journalists tell a different tale.)

Indeed, he was regularly portrayed as an authentic every man, a master communicator, and that rare politician who cut through stagecraft to deliver uncomfortable truths. In other words, in the eyes of the Beltway press, Christie represented the opposite of Hillary Clinton, who's now regularly belittled in the press as a phony.

Here's how the political press toasted Christie, en masse, following his 2013 re-election:

In the last month alone, TIME magazine has declared  that Christie governed with “kind of bipartisan dealmaking that no one seems to do anymore.” MSNBC's Morning Joe called  the governor “different,” “fresh,” and “sort of a change from public people that you see coming out of Washington.” In a GQ profile, Christie was deemed  “that most unlikely of pols: a happy warrior,” while National Journal described  him as “the Republican governor with a can-do attitude” who “made it through 2013 largely unscathed. No scandals, no embarrassments or gaffes.” ABC's Barbara Walters crowned  Christie as one of her 10 Most Fascinating People, casting him as a “passionate and compassionate” politician who cannot lie.

Newsweek published a cover story headlined, "What Obama Can Learn From Chris Christie," and The Washington Post asked, "Is Chris Christie The Republicans' Bill Clinton?" Indeed, the Beltway press treated Christie's easy win against an underdog Democratic opponent (via record low voter turnout) as a national coronation, complete with a flurry of Sunday talk show softball interviews.

Why the gushing coverage from journalists who usually pride themselves on their stoic, and often, cynical view of politics?

“Christie is basically the dream candidate of the masculinity-obsessed middle-aged male centrist-worshiping pundit,” wrote Alex Pareene at Salon. “He's 'tough,' because he shouts at people.” Added colleague Joan Walsh, “For odd reasons, media folks seem to like bullies and mean guys, as long as they're mean to the right people.”

To be precise, the press seems to like Republican bullies. Prior to the eruption of the lane-closing controversy last year, the New Jersey governor spent years basking in the Beltway media glow specifically because of his eagerness to unleash combative, insulting bromides. It showed he was authentic!

But could you even imagine if an angry candidate Obama, or President Obama, shook his finger in the face of a voter at a town hall forum the way Christie loves to do and get rewarded for it? The media freak-out in the wake of an Obama flash of raw anger would likely be incalculable.

And recall last summer when during an interview with NPR's Terry Gross, Clinton got into a mildly contentious back-and-forth when the host repeatedly suggested Clinton only expressed her support for gay marriage when it became politically expedient. The media's response to the minor NPR kerfuffle was swift and fierce, as Clinton was widely condemned for getting too emotional. MSNBC, The Wall Street Journal, Politico and New York all deducted points for her “testy” exchange. 

As Jessica Valenti wrote in The Guardian, “Any emotion that Hillary Clinton shows has always been used against her.” By contrast, any emotion Christie showed was used to elevate him to hero status in the press.

So as Christie launches his White House run, keep in mind that among all the candidates from both parties, it's a conservative Republican governor who, over the last five years, accumulated the largest pile of glowing Beltway press clips. And it's a candidate who has fallen almost completely out of favor with American voters.