Why does Chris Christie have so many fans? Perhaps this late in the season, fear over not having the right candidate to beat Obama is giving way to despair. Or perhaps Christie’s pugnacious approach to unions gives him an edge. His budget record in New Jersey amid the recession has also earned him countless fans on the far right.
And of course, one of the governor’s most frequently mentioned appeals is his charisma. That’s what’s missing in the current GOP field, some feel. He has enough of it to match Obama’s, others have said. Fundraisers believe it’s one of the top reasons he’s getting lured into the race. “The art of politics starts with charisma,” wrote Ross Douthat in The New York Times last week. “A candidate who can attract voters on a visceral level almost always has an edge over rivals who check every ideological box but never find a way to inspire affection.”
But I think all the talk of Christie’s charisma is missing the point. Yes, he has it. But charisma may be one of the most ill-defined words we use to describe people in positions of leadership. All too often, it becomes a synonym for being physically attractive. Or it’s equated with swagger. Perhaps most accurately, it can be described as a magnetic personality that turns people into followers.
In my mind, the two biggest reasons there’s so much buzz around Christie’s potential candidacy are for different reasons. Whatever you may think of his politics, his tough-talking style seems the perfect foil to a president now known for his willingness to negotiate and compromise and even back down in the name of pragmatism.
Even more so, I believe what people are mistaking for Christie’s powerful charisma is actually his authenticity, or at least what they perceive to be his authentic self. A leader can be “charismatic,” as some would say—slapping backs and telling jokes and coming off as a likeable guy—but if it doesn’t seem to fit with their true selves, it’s not nearly as powerful.
It may be the result of stereotypes, but fairly or unfairly, Christie sounds like voters might expect a former prosecutor from New Jersey to sound. He talks back to voters who question him sending his children to public schools at the same time he’s cutting teacher benefits. (“This is who I am, the public knows they get it straight from me,” he told Meet the Press’s David Gregory.) And when threatened with a state government shutdown, he famously said he’d open a beer, order a pizza and watch the Mets back at the governor’s residence.
That sort of resonance with the people he leads is a powerful attribute, and Christie knows it. “I believe part of leadership is understanding, articulating and believing in that which is special and unique about the people you serve,” he said in the same American Enterprise Institute speech. If Christie does run, the question will be how much his brash-talking, abrasive style will resonate with a national audience.
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