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On Chris Christie and Bullying the Right People

All signs point to Gov. Chris Christie cruising to reelection in New Jersey tonight.

This is one of those times when personal bias [3] is well nigh overwhelming: Christie—an authentic, half-Italian, New Jerseyan Bruce Springsteen uberfanatic, and a strong conservative [4] by any reasonable standard—is about to rocket to the top tier of 2016 presidential contenders.

Judging by a spate of recent posts and on-the-ground reports, Business Insider’s Josh Barro is an unabashed fan of Christie as well. He even brushes aside [5] the one serious reservation I have about the governor: his proclivity for in-your-face confrontations—in a word, “bullying”:

Christie’s confrontational personality can appeal to all sorts of electorates so long as he trains his anger in the right places.

When Christie yelled at that teacher yesterday about how education spending levels will “never be enough” for New Jersey’s teachers’ unions, he was doing so in a state that spent $19,291 per pupil on K-12 education last year — more than any state except New York and Vermont and 74% more than the national average. … So long as Christie keeps training his anger in the right place, Christie will be O.K. What national liberal reporters don’t get is that “towards teachers” can be the right place, politically and substantively, to train that anger.

This is true as far as it goes.

Which I fear is not actually very far.

Back in 2010, I wrote this at U.S. News [6]:

In the short term, the example of New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie is instructive. He has maintained popularity while aggressively pushing an agenda of fiscal austerity. How does he do it? Simple: In teachers unions and state-government employees, Christie has found a juicy, isolatable adversary. This works on the state level, where things like pensions and teacher benefits are significant sources of budget shortfalls—unlike on the national level, where middle-class entitlements are the big driver.

The lesson is this: To the extent that “government” is a sectional entity—an interest group consisting of people who have not had to “sacrifice like the rest of us”—Republicans will find that cutting it is politically popular. To that extent that “government” is Grandma and Grandpa in Boca Raton, Republicans will need to tread carefully and—it’s possible to do both—honestly.

Zoom in on “juicy, isolatable adversary.”

At the presidential level, teachers aren’t going to cut it. Neither are employees of the federal government, whose salaries account for about 5 percent of total federal spending.

Is Chris Christie going to yell at senior citizens about Medicare?

Is he going to yell at beneficiaries of food stamps?

Is he going to yell at families on Medicaid or CHIP?

Is he going to yell at farmers about agribusiness subsidies?

If Christie is a wise and disciplined campaigner, I find it hard to believe he’d do any of those things. And given his recent disparagement [7] of the GOP’s “libertarian strain” in the context of the debate over the national security state, I can’t see Christie getting up in the grill of a Pentagon contractor, either.

Teachers and public-sector employees who don’t want to pay as much for their healthcare as most of the rest of us do are the “right targets” when you’re arguing about state budgets. In fact, they are ridiculously easy targets. They are to Chris Christie what southern reactionaries are to Sacha Baron Cohen [8].

But I ask Josh: who are the analogously easy marks when you’re talking about the federal budget, and do you honestly think it will do Chris Christie any good to get in their faces?

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#1 Comment By RadicalCenter2016 On November 5, 2013 @ 5:10 pm

Yes, I am a federal employee, but I think Christie (or whoever the next president is) would do well to focus taxpayers on federal employees’ benefits.

The federal taxpayer pays 72% of our medical-insurance premiums. Surely we could gradually increase the share of premiums paid by the federal government employee, decreasing the share paid by the taxpayers.

Instead of paying only 28% of our own medical-insurance premiums, how about increasing that a couple percent per year till we’re paying at least 50% of our premiums? Every bit helps, and federal employees need to do their part to stop our deficit spending.

#2 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On November 5, 2013 @ 5:11 pm

here’s my beef with Christie, and I am a NJ native. if he truly wants to cut spending and balance the budget, or whatever; and he believes the “teachers’ union” is the quickest route to victory; negotiate a NJ favorable (as opposed to union favorable) deal, to ensure that future NJ taxpayers will not shoulder most of the load. it’s like the ACA dust up; it’s the law. the time to raise hackles and draw lines in the sand is during negotiations; not after the fact. until Christie and the GOP stop fighting battles of the past, as opposed to the future, they (GOP) can exhume and nominate Ronald Reagan in 2016, and it won’t make a difference. “bullying” folks who have earned pensions, social security, healthcare through CBAs, negotiated in good faith isn’t exactly “presidential” in my book. plus, he like Springsteen and he hugged Obama; he may put his finger in the air or dip his toe in the water, but he’s not leaving the Garden State

#3 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On November 5, 2013 @ 5:13 pm

excuse me, goes without saying; Social Security benefits are earned through a lifetime of work.

#4 Comment By Forrest On November 5, 2013 @ 5:30 pm

Re: Joe

SS Benefits (and to an even greater degree Medicare benefits) are not really earned through a lifetime of work, both generally pay out more than is put in. (Again especially for Medicare)

Its the equivalent of giving someone 8 bucks, and them giving you back 10 bucks, and then saying you “earned” that 10 dollars.

#5 Comment By isaacplautus On November 5, 2013 @ 5:31 pm

As a teacher, my problem is with Christie using the same old cliche “failure” label to tar public schools. Since I live in NC, I wish we could get our Republicans here to bring us to New Jersey levels on teacher salaries and per pupil spending. But when Christie talks about “failure factories” the clear message he’s sending to public school teachers like me is “I don’t value or empathize with what you do and I think you’re crap.”

I work my @ss off everyday for poverty level students that no one else in our society seems to give a damn about. When conservatives call me a “failure” how do they expect me to respond?

#6 Comment By Jordan Bloom On November 5, 2013 @ 5:32 pm

I’ll just leave this bit from Walter Russell Mead [9]: “Reform cannot and should not be understood simply as an assault on state and local government workers — although these workers cannot be insulated from the general consequences of a major failure of our political system. The problem is not that teachers and firefighters earn “too much” money; the problem is that we have developed a dysfunctional social system which cannot pay its bills. The public economy needs to be rationalized and restructured, but the most important job is to revitalize and energize the private sector.”

#7 Comment By Essayist-Lawyer On November 5, 2013 @ 5:34 pm

Federal employee pensions and benefits are a miniscule portion of the federal budget. Demagoguing the issue and pretending that they are a huge item is great politics. Of course, it will do next to nothing to actually balance the budget, but Republican budget balancing zeal lasts only as long as there is a Democrat in the White House. Once they can assure the base that a Republican is the one spending their hard earned money, deficits will suddenly cease to matter.

#8 Comment By cameyer On November 5, 2013 @ 5:37 pm

Joe – you have an exceptionally good way of putting the difference between fighting during negotiations and continuing it afterwards.

Christie has to watch out that he doesn’t get into screaming matches with ordinary voters or individuals. But I’d like to see him go after Pentagon contractors. Pentagon contracting – cost over-runs, publicity campaigns for new weapons – is scandalous. Christie might find broader independent and liberal support if he want after some of the worse of crony capitalism.

#9 Comment By spite On November 5, 2013 @ 5:56 pm

His open hostility to libertarian ideals, his clear support of the security state and personal penchant for bullying makes him every neocons dream. A president Christie is a very scary idea.

#10 Comment By spite On November 5, 2013 @ 6:03 pm

Christie is not a conservative, despite what the author of this article thinks, you will find as many liberals gushing over him than as conservatives (and most of them are the neocon kind).

#11 Comment By Cliff On November 5, 2013 @ 6:14 pm

Forrest –

Of course, we take more out of social security than we put in. If you save 12.4% of your income from age 20 to age 65, with interest at 2%, you can then take out more than 50% of your working income for the next 20 years, with no subsidies. Most folks get less than that from social security. You’d have to be even more anti-capitalist than I to say that that’s not earned.

#12 Comment By Myron Hudson On November 5, 2013 @ 6:18 pm

I’d like to point out the obvious, which is that Christie is at least shrewd enough to pick fights that he can win. As we’ve recently seen, this is not a widely-shared characteristic these days. That is real politicking, and it works. However that was the low-lying fruit. From this point forward, things become more difficult and less likely.

Re: the position that union members find themselves in these days vis their unfunded pensions: Yes, they do have a legitimate beef, but no, they do not have a good position, thanks to their very own leadership. Union leaders commonly negotiate away real-time wages in exchange for future benefits. This is as much to the benefit of the employer as it is to the employee, in that it lowers the employers’ capital expenditures. The employer does not pay out pension benefits in their entirety; instead the employer contributes to pension plans which are invested in growth funds which in turn will, under ideal circumstances, fund the pensions in their entirety. The problem is that under less than ideal circumstances, such as a collapse of financial markets, the funds simply will not be there.

Yes, the employees acted in good faith and yes, the employers made the contributions to the pension funds. However the entire system depends on something for which there is no guarantee. All growth investment involves risk. Reference can be made to counting chickens before they hatch, or a bird in the hand being worth two in the bush. Avian homilies aside, one might argue that union leaders have failed their rank and file by selling something as a sure thing when it was not a sure thing.

#13 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On November 5, 2013 @ 7:21 pm

@Forrest, my point is, fair or unfair, sustainable or unsustainable, Social Security, Medicaid, etc. are law. Americans who are now receiving benefits paid into the system per the law/tax code, etc. If Christie (in NJ) or Congress (Federal) want to re-write the laws – moving forward – I am all for it. Christie et al are bashing folks who are “producers” not “moochers” and he should be “bullying” the politicians, past and present who negotiated/passed these contracts/laws. it’s like buying a car, driving it for ten years, then returning it to the dealer with 150,000 miles and saying; on second thought, I want my money back – I made a mistake in buying this car.

#14 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On November 5, 2013 @ 7:23 pm

both cameyer and Essayist-Lawyer are spot on. the US spends more on “defense” than the next 10 of our “allies” combined.

#15 Comment By Mac61 On November 5, 2013 @ 7:28 pm

I guess campaigning is about theatrics and energizing the base, etc. etc. I was interested in Christie for 2016, but this put me off. I work with too many people who indulge their anger in this fashion. Christie is Catholic, no? One of the sayings of the desert fathers is, “If in correcting another you gratify your passion, you lose yourself.” Self-control is a Catholic virtue. Being a belligerent jerk is nothing to be proud of, even if “it works.”

#16 Comment By jamie On November 5, 2013 @ 10:16 pm

At the presidential level, teachers aren’t going to cut it. Neither are employees of the federal government, whose salaries account for about 5 percent of total federal spending.

I disagree, I don’t see what the actual percentage of spending has to do with it, in this world where voters assume something like 20% of our budget goes to “foreign aid.” A Christie or similarly-motivated personage can simply pull a Gore and regale voters with stories, one every three days or so, of a $600 toilet seat, or a taxpayer-funded hot cocoa dispenser in the IRS break room. It’s the government worker-equivalent of stoners buying lobster and plasma TVs with their EBTs, it’s always a winner.

Reporters love to parrot that stuff too, it makes them feel like they’re reporting an exposé and it lines up with the no-nonsense “reformer with results” narrative that they love to pour on Republican governors.

excuse me, goes without saying; Social Security benefits are earned through a lifetime of work.

Eh, that’s not a firm basis for a public entitlement; does it imply that Medicaid recipients, military widows and the blind aren’t as deserving of their checks?

Social Security isn’t earned, we say it is to salve the moralistic types but it really isn’t. We pay it for the same reason we pay for Medicare — without it, many old people would recourse to their children’s income for health care and living expenses. One old man with cancer could ruin an entire family for generations.

#17 Comment By elizabeth On November 5, 2013 @ 10:32 pm

“…Republican budget balancing zeal lasts only as long as there is a Democrat in the White House. Once they can assure the base that a Republican is the one spending their hard earned money, deficits will suddenly cease to matter.”

Amen to that. And the fact that deficits tumbled during the past two Democratic administrations continues to be ignored by the allegedly “liberal media.”

I’d probably love to have Christie as a neighbor or fellow PTA parent. Not sure I want him as my president.

#18 Comment By Glaivester On November 5, 2013 @ 11:48 pm

healthcare through CBAs

Please explain your abbreviations. I’m not familiar with the term.

#19 Comment By Ethan C. On November 6, 2013 @ 1:23 am

I can think of someone I’d be happy to see him “bully” on the federal level: corporate tax evaders and Wall Street banksters. But he probably won’t, of course. For obvious reasons.

#20 Comment By Puller58 On November 6, 2013 @ 6:42 am

The one things that was seen as a threat to Christie was his time as a Federal attorney. Unless there’s something left to report, it seems he’s on safe ground in that regard. As for the White House, if Mitt Romney could get the nod, so can Christie. I do think he’d not fare well with Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee.

#21 Comment By Ken T On November 6, 2013 @ 9:12 am


“However the entire system depends on something for which there is no guarantee. ”

That’s not really true. From the employees’ point of view, the pension returns are guaranteed. The contract they signed says “you will receive X dollars as your pension”, it does not say “you will receive whatever returns your employer makes on his investments”. The problem is that the employers base their contributions to the pension fund on their expectations of what the investments will return. So they are the party choosing to take the risk, not the employees. But when that risk goes south, they expect to be able to pass the loss off onto the employees and unilaterally overturn the contract.

#22 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On November 6, 2013 @ 10:34 am

collective bargaining agreement (CBA). a union will represent its members collectively, as opposed to each individual negotiating his/her own deal; salary, benefits, paid leave, etc.

#23 Comment By M_Young On November 6, 2013 @ 11:12 am

The thing is, the bullying of the public sector unions didn’t work for the first guy who tried it — Arnold Schwartzeneggar. In fact, it failed miserably. And when Whitman tried it in 2010, it failed again. Why it worked in NJ, and seemingly in Wisconsin, I have no idea. It is true that public sector unions are unpopular with what might be called in the center-right in California politics and among the voters that the GOP is supposed to be appealing to (according to all the right thinkers) — i.e. socially liberal fiscal conservatives. But those folks are pretty scarce, and a full frontal attack on public sector unions here is political suicide.

#24 Comment By Screwtape On November 6, 2013 @ 12:37 pm

“Is Chris Christie going to yell at senior citizens about Medicare?
…beneficiaries of food stamps?
…families on Medicaid or CHIP?
…farmers about agribusiness subsidies?”

Why not? The rest of the GOP seems to. And it seems to be what the base wants. So, what’s the downside?

#25 Comment By W.E.B. Dupree On November 6, 2013 @ 2:10 pm

M_Young brought up the same issue that came to my mind reading this piece — the Governator’s failure to convince California voters that teachers, nurses, cops, and firefighters are the bad guys in our society. Maybe Christie should just bash “public employees” without specifying which employees he’s talking about.

Or just bash government itself, I guess. That seemed to work well for Schwarzenegger during his first campaign, when he mostly stuck to vague attacks on “ze girly men in Sacramento.”

#26 Comment By stef On November 6, 2013 @ 2:19 pm

I don’t know enough about NJ state politics (especially politics of education) to explain why bullying teachers on-camera still earned Christie 55% of the women’s vote.

What I do know is that out here in Flyover Country, there are three main educational choices: public school, Catholic school, and home schooling. Among public schools, many are actually of good to high quality. Anti-teacher rhetoric just doesn’t fly.

And some flyover states (like MO) have explicit state constitutional restrictions on tax money going to religious schools, unlike Louisiana. So flapping on about how taxpayers need to pay for Catholic education isn’t going to fly, either.

Home school parents are in a class of their own, and make up less than 2-3% of all students. They are not all conservative, either.

But mainly, the visual image of a loud, big, middle-aged man yelling at a smaller woman is not one that would probably go over well in the Midwest.

#27 Comment By cka2nd On November 6, 2013 @ 3:11 pm

Civil service “reform” has been on the establishment’s agenda since at least the late 1970’s. Along with his several deregulation bills, Jimmy Carter signed a civil service reform law that included “merit pay” (i.e., favoritism). In the 80’s, privatization and contracting out became popular and, just like in the private sector, new “tiers” were set up for new employees, who could look forward to reduced pensions, more expensive healthcare (which is, in effect, a wage cut) and/or reduced or lagged wages.

In fact, the current attacks on public employees is straight out of the 1980’s playbook and should be familar to any former steelworkers, meatpackers, airline pilots, flight attendants or mechanics, truckers, autoworkers, merchant mariners or retail workers represented by a union back in the immediate post-PATCO days: “You lazy, overfed bastards are making too much money, have cushy workplace rules and enjoy Cadillac pensions and healtcare. You’re a drain on the competitiveness of the national economy! Why should you enjoy better pay and benefits than those (non-union) workers over there? In fact, YOUR excessive compensation is such a drag on the economy that YOU are the cause of much of the poverty in the nation! If American goods cost less to produce, we could sell more overseas AND poorer Americans would keep more of their money and be able to work and save themselves out of poverty.”

The arguments worked like a charm and are now winning over Americans who think that the lousy pay, non-existent benefits, “you’re on your own” pension plans, increasingly dangerous workplaces, and constant speed up and forced overtime are normal and the standard that everyone must be forced to accept. In other words, villians are pushing the same poison they or their predecessors were pushing in the 1980’s, and, much as I hate to say it, too damn many Americans are too ignorant or foolish not to buy it.