Chris Christie and the ‘fat’ question

December 13, 2012

Give this to Barbara Walters: She doesn't shy away from asking uncomfortable questions.

In a sitdown with Chris Christie, Walters questioned whether the New Jersey governor was too overweight to be an effective president.

"That's ridiculous," said Christie. "I mean, that's ridiculous. I don't know what the basis for that it is." He added that his handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy should dispel that notion; "I think people watched me for the last number of weeks during Hurricane Sandy doing 18-hour days and getting back up the next day and still being just as effective in the job, so I don't think that will be a problem," said Christie.

But, it's not really ridiculous. And the idea that it wouldn't be a problem -- or, at the very least, something he would need to address in a much more comprehensive way -- is far-fetched.

Here's why.  

Politically, Christie's weight will be a constant topic of conversation. How people react to that conversation -- in a country in which obesity is epidemic -- is up in the air.

Pragmatically, Christie's weight would make who he picked as a vice president crucial as there would inevitably be concerns raised -- privately and even publicly -- about what would happen if he was incapacitated in some way due to his size.

"Being obese, and he certainly is, makes everyone assume he is a heart attack waiting to happen," said Ed Rollins, a longtime Republican operative who managed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign in 2008.

Christie himself has acknowledged his weight as a major issue/struggle in the past. In an interview with ABC's "Nightline" this summer, Christie acknowledged that his weight is "a really difficult thing to deal with", adding: "I guess the best analogy to make is some people drink too much. Some people take drugs. Some people eat too much. See, you can go live every day without drinking. You can live every day without taking drugs. You can’t live every day without eating."

Running for president in this modern age has become as much about who you are as what you believe. Selling the narrative of a life trumps all -- in the minds of many voters and most of the media. Need proof? Ask yourself this: Did Barack Obama win the Democratic nomination and the presidency in 2008 on the force of his ideas or on the power of his personal story?  The latter -- big time.

Since there is such an intense personal focus to running for president, it's virtually impossible to carve out a private life that is off limits to questions. (The one exception to this reality appears to be young-ish children who are generally left out of the intense personal examination.)

And, how you look in politics matter. (It matters in EVERY other place in life, so why wouldn't it matter in politics?) Could President Obama have been elected if he was homely? Sure. But the fact that he was attractive -- and became a sort of fashion icon -- didnt' hurt. That Mitt Romney looked like a matinee idol from the 1950s or that John Kerry looked like the definition of a senator clearly has helped them throughout their political careers and in their bids to be their party's presidential nominee.

Combine those two factors and it's clear that Christie's size is absolutely something that will a) go into voters' calculations about not only his candidacy (if he decides to run)  but also his pick for vice president if he winds up as the party's nominee, and b) something that he must find ways to address publicly. 

Huckabee's handling of the weight issue in his 2008 presidential bid provides something of a blueprint. Huckabee incorporated his weight-loss into his broader message: "I'm like you. I've struggled with weight." It worked for Huckabee but he was also running as a formerly overweight person, not a currently overweight person. It's not clear whether Christie could use his struggles with weight to relate to the average person if he was still significantly overweight. 

Huckabee, for his part, was dismissive of the idea that weight should be an issue for Christie.  "It's absurd to say that his weight is an issue," said Huckabee of Christie. "Was Obama's smoking cigarettes a disqualifier for him to be President?  It's incredibly discriminating to make Christie's weight an issue when it's whether he's healthy enough to do the job that should matter."

But, Christie's weight will matter -- NBC's Chuck Todd describes it as the New Jersey governor's "tax returns" issue. Now, whether it should be a topic of discussion is a bit of a tougher nut to crack.

Christie's argument seems to be that he has been this size for quite some time and it's never impacted his ability to do the job. That's broadly true, although Christie was hospitalized in the summer of 2011 for breathing problems, a hospital stay that stoked talk of whether his weight was an impediment to him doing the job.

But, equating serving well as an overweight governor of New Jersey and serving well as an overweight president of the United States doesn't really work.

The governor of New Jersey has to travel around, well, New Jersey. The president has to regularly travel not just around the United States but around the world. The stress of being governor of New Jersey is significant but it's nowhere near the stress of being the de facto leader of the free world.  Ditto the day in and day out responsibilities -- President Obama has spent the better part of the last two weeks shaking hands (and standing in one place) at White House Christmas parties for various groups.

And, a focus on a president's health is not something that would be unique to Christie.  The release of the health records of the presidential candidates is regularly a news story even if there are no lingering questions about them. Back in the early 1990s there was an intense focus on whether Paul Tsongas, a candidate for the Democratic nomination, was completely cancer-free after being diagnosed with lymphoma in 1986.  (Tsongas eventually died in 1997 after his cancer re-occurred.) When John Kerry was diagnosed with prostate cancer, he had to answer doubts about whether he could withstand the rigor of the campaign and of serving in the White House. (Being overweight is not the same thing as having cancer and we don't mean to equate the two. But the broader point is that it's not new that presidential candidates have to answer health questions.)

Here's the bottom line: Christie's weight would be a topic of discussion/concern if he decided to run for president in 2016. It's not disqualifying but it is an issue he would need to find an effective way to address.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan · December 13, 2012