Chris Christie has long been unusually popular for a politician — he's the big-hearted, confrontational, and ultimately decent guy from half-remembered television moments, Letterman and Leno and the 2012 presidential election.
Until this week, however, he was missing a crucial piece of political image: Nobody associated him with a policy or a program, just with a general haze of good will.
Well, that problem has been solved. Chris Christie finally has a well-known policy stance. He's the guy who closed a bridge as an act of petty retribution, and whose aides lied like crazy about it and said some truly despicable things — about, for instance, punishing Democratic voters' children — in their private emails.
Christie denies having known about the politically motivated closures, and his aides' testimony under oath and to law enforcement agents will probably shed some light on whether he's telling the truth about that. But anyone who brushes off the damage that has been done to the former Republican frontrunner for 2016 is falling prey to the fallacy that dictates a lot of early presidential campaign coverage: They're assuming people who express a mild preference for Chris Christie in opinion polls know anything about the guy.
In fact, the first political impressions on which early polls (and Christie leads Republicans with a modest 18% in one recent survey) are light, passing impressions. The voters who answer these polls know one thing about the candidate, maybe two, maybe three. If they knew one thing about Christie beyond his physical appearance, it's that he was blunt and honest. If they knew a second, it's that he wasn't a partisan — that he hugged Obama when the president helped his state.
Now that light impression has another stamp on top of it: That he's a partisan, surrounded (at least) by liars, and a guy whose punishment for his enemies, their voters, and their children was pretty much the thing Americans hate most.
There's "nothing as ubiquitous — or as universally despised — as a traffic jam," noted one top Democrat Thursday.
People who think hard about Chris Christie's place in presidential politics always land on Rudy Giuliani, who Republicans thought they liked for a minute, and then got to know. Politico's Maggie Haberman, who has probably covered the pair more closely than any other reporter since her time in Giuliani's New York City Hall, talked to the former mayor recently about Christie and gave his optimistic comparison: Christie, he told her, is a better candidate than he was.
Today, he looks a lot more like Rudy at his weakest: The good first impression deeply undercut by incomprehensible local detail.
Giuliani is "the closest example" to Christie's current state, said Rick Tyler, a former top aide to Newt Gingrich.
"You and I knew him very, very well, me because of his work with Newt, and I read his book," Tyler recalled of Giuliani's presidential flame-out. "But when he showed up in Iowa with four blacked out SUVs and a security detail, it was a little odd."
"People who are watching cable TV every day … get a sense of who Christie is, but the average voter isn't paying that close of attention," Tyler said. Now, "voters are annoyed enough to pay attention."
You can read all the usual prescriptions online for how Christie can fix this problem. He should come clean, bare his breast, admit mistakes, fire people. And — sure. That's how he can save his governorship, and maybe claw his way back to the status of an unusually effective governor of New Jersey, a guy who gets his way in Trenton, controls the local Republican Party, wins more policy fights in the state legislature than he loses.
But the massive national damage has been done. (And Hillary Clinton ought to thank Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his staff's role in pushing the story forward.)
But politicians don't get that many moments in the national spotlight. Voters don't have the time or interest, this far out, to know more than one or two things about these remote media figures. And now, if anyone knows anything about Chris Christie, it's that he closed a bridge.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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