By Eric Fettman
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did what’s being called a reverse Rick Lazio last week in his first debate with his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Barbara Buono.
In fact, it’s more accurate to call it a George W. Bush moment.
Moderator Kristine Johnson of WCBS asked both candidates to say one nice thing nice about the other. Buono snapped sarcastically: “Well, he’s good on late-night TV; he’s not so good in New Jersey.”
Her supporters greeted the line with “whoos” and howls of laughter and applause. As Buono stood at the podium with a self-satisfied grin on her face, they probably expected Christie to respond with one of those trademark tirades he often reserves for his most in-your-face hecklers.
But the governor had a surprise in store: “She’s obviously a good and caring mother and someone who cares deeply about public service in this state, ’cause she’s dedicated a lot of her life to it,” he said. “And while we have policy disagreements, Kristine, I would never denigrate her service.”
Added Christie: “We need more people who care about our communities to stand up and do the job she’s done over the last 20 years.” As the audience replied with sustained applause and cheering, the smile slowly – but very surely – vanished from Buono’s face.
She’d just learned a basic lesson in political debating: When offered the chance to be magnanimous, don’t be a smart-aleck.
Lazio learned that lesson in 2000, when his campaign for the US Senate from New York imploded when he charged across the debate stage, thrust a document containing a pledge not to raise any more soft money in Hillary Clinton’s face and demanded she sign it. Voters (unfairly) believed he came off as a bully.
Christie may have had Lazio’s unfortunate experience in mind. Or he may have recalled events six years earlier, when a political novice named George W. Bush took on Ann Richards, the Texas governor – who remains so popular, even after her death, that she was the subject of a recent one-woman show on Broadway.
Richards was known for her barbed wit; she’d famously skewered Bush’s father at the 1988 Democratic convention, declaring that he’d been “born with a silver foot in his mouth.” In 1994, she applied that sharp tongue to the younger Bush, referring to him in one speech as “some jerk.” As they prepared backstage before their lone debate, Richards came over and said, “Are you ready for this, boy? This is going to be rough on you.”
Which is what everyone was expecting. But Bush refused to take the bait. After her opening remarks asking listeners to pray for Texas hurricane victims, Bush opened by saying: “Well spoken, governor.”
Throughout the debate, the more Richards tried to goad him, the more deferential and respectful Bush became, always calling her “governor.” He was gracious, in sharp contrast to his opponent, even as he pressed home his message. The comparison wasn’t lost on the voters, and Bush ended up defeating a Democratic icon.
As UC-Berkeley linguist George Lakoff told The Atlantic’s James Fallows back in 2004, “Debates are not about scoring points. They are about emotional identification.”
In New Jersey, of course, Christie has been more of an Ann Richards than a George W. Bush. But with re-election seemingly assured – the latest Quinnipiac Poll has him 29 points ahead – and his eyes on 2016, it’s been a gentler Christie on the campaign trail. Or, as one of his top advisers, William Palatucci, put it, “calm, cool, collected and in control.”
That’s just one of many balancing acts Christie will have to perform if he has any hopes for the GOP presidential nomination. The party’s increasingly dominant Tea Party faction has no tolerance for a candidate who walked the post-Sandy beaches with President Obama and is actively trying to distance himself from congressional Republicans. And despite the fiscal strides New Jersey’s made under Christie, other GOP governors have more demonstrable records of success.
Not that he’ll want to become too much of a pussycat – that Garden State swagger and in-your-face attitude, after all, is a major reason for his enormous popularity, both locally and nationally, where he’s the hottest draw on the GOP fund-raising circuit.
Still, Chris Christie has shown that it may no longer be that easy to goad him into a hot-tempered outburst, much as Ann Richards discovered about George W. Bush. And you remember where he wound up.