All politicians have to deal with hecklers from time to time, and most try to handle it by being polite but firm, using the moments before security reaches the person and hustles them out to say something like: "This is America, and everyone has the right to speak their minds. So you've had your say, and now it's my turn." It allows the politician to show the crowd that he's unflappable and patient, but not intimidated. That is, unless you're Chris Christie, in which case every heckler is an opportunity to show that you're something else: a tough guy who don't take guff from nobody. To wit, this video from Wednesday, taken by a Democratic tracker:
My favorite part is how Christie keeps calling him "buddy" (reminded me of this). Now try to imagine what would happen if Barack Obama shouted "Sit down and shut up!" at a citizen. Or almost any other prominent politician, for that matter; commentators would immediately start questioning his mental health. But even though it's been a while, shouting at people was how Chris Christie became a national figure talked about as a potential presidential candidate in the first place. Most of the incidents happened at town meetings early in his first term. Somebody would ask Christie a critical question, and he would unload a heap of condescension, contempt, and sometimes outright anger on them, in a way you don't often see from politicians who all want to be thought of as friendly people. Conservatives were thrilled to see a Republican who would stick it to people they don't like, whether it was some punk kid or a teacher questioning Christie's education policies, they sent the YouTube links to each other with glee, and a star was born.
So what separates Christie from someone like Representative Don Young of Alaska, who has a strong case to win biggest jerk in Congress, a title for which there is no shortage of competition? The key lies in who find themselves targets of Christie's outbursts. Don Young grabs, threatens, or insults pretty much anybody who gets in his way. But Christie usually has some kind of substantive policy disagreement with the person he's lashing out at. Most of us would think that's not nearly enough justification for behavior that looks a lot like simple bullying (particularly given the power imbalance between Christie and whoever he's yelling at), but it does allow him to claim that he's not just an asshole, he's an asshole with purpose. If you stand up at a town meeting and ask him an impertinent question about something like the state budget, he'll shout you down (to the cheers of his supporters).
Here are a few ways to explain this pattern of behavior:
- This is a calculated way of showing that he's a Tough Guy, which Christie knows Republicans love
- This is just who Christie is, and if nobody was around he'd still be picking fights with people
- Both 1 and 2
I lean toward number 3. It isn't just play-acting, because Christie obviously gets sincerely pissed off when he's challenged by people he thinks are beneath him. At the same time, he's a smart enough politician to know that the cameras are on, and there's some benefit to reinforcing the persona he has created.
But you know where you don't get too many chances to show what a tough guy you are? Iowa. Campaigning for the caucuses is an interminable process of trooping from living room to senior center to VFW hall, meeting people in small groups, looking them in the eye and asking them for their votes. Christie is a pretty good retail politician, so it isn't that he can't perform in those settings. But being tough just isn't part of that show, and if the biggest part of Christie's appeal is that he can talk like an extra from Goodfellas when somebody challenges him, he isn't going to get very far.