Chris Christie’s lap-band surgery and what it means for 2016

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he decided to get lap-band surgery in February for his family. "For me, this is about turning 50 and looking at my children and wanting to be there for them," Christie told the New York Post.


New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

We believe him. But, Christie's decision to undergo surgery to help him lose weight can't be removed from the context of politics since Christie is widely regarded as a presidential candidate in 2016 -- assuming he wins re-election to a second term in the Garden State this fall.

The simple fact, which Christie, his advisers and everyone else in politics knows, is this: No one as overweight as the New Jersey governor has come close to winning the presidency (or even a party's nomination) in the modern -- read: television -- era.

Bill Clinton struggled some with his weight during his presidency -- who could forget this picture? -- but he was, at most, slightly overweight, not obese. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was very heavy during his time in office but made his remarkable weight loss a major part of his 2008 presidential campaign. (Heck, he wrote a book about it.)

But there aren't that many examples of people with major weight problems -- and Christie has acknowledged many times publicly that his issues with weight are serious -- who have come close to the presidency.  (The only obvious example is, of course, William Howard Taft. But he was president more than a hundred years ago.)  Our last two presidents -- George W. Bush and Barack Obama -- both put a premium on physical fitness, regularly working out or clearing brush (Bush) or playing basketball (Obama).

Given that context, Christie's weight was always going to be a major stumbling block on his path to the presidency.  In an interview in December, ABC's Barbara Walters asked Christie whether his size had the potential to limit his efficacy as president. “That’s ridiculous,” Christie said at the time. “I mean, that’s ridiculous. I don’t know what the basis for that it is.”

As we wrote at the time, it wasn't (and isn't) all that ridiculous. Christie's weight already came up during his 2009 campaign for governor in this brutal ad by Jon Corzine. And, in any -- literally, any -- conversation that we've had with a Republican (or Democratic) party operative about Christie's potential 2016 candidacy the first thing that comes up is his weight as a problem.

Why? Two reasons -- one practical, the other symbolic.

As a practical matter, someone who weighs as much as Christie would incur all sorts of health risks that would someone his age but much lighter would not. That reality would put a far higher premium on who he picked for his vice presidential nominee than for a candidate without weight problems.

“Being obese, and he certainly is, makes everyone assume he is a heart attack waiting to happen,” Ed Rollins, a longtime Republican operative who managed Huckabee’s presidential campaign in 2008, told the Fix in late 2012.

Symbolically, Christie's weight matters too. Remember that the vote for president -- unlike votes for a House Member, a Senator or even a governor -- is heavily aspirational.  We want our president to represent the best of us -- or the best that we hope to be. While millions of Americans struggle with their weight, very few hope that they will always be heavy.

There is the flip side of the weight argument too. If Christie is able to lose a substantial amount of weight -- his aides will not confirm whether and how much weight he has lost since the surgery -- he immediately becomes someone who can connect in a very personal way with the struggles many people have with their own weight.

To understand just how far-reaching weight is as an issue in this country, all you need to do is look at the amount of time dedicated to eating healthier and losing weight on programs like the "Today" show.  Or at the Amazon non-fiction best seller list. (Gwyneth Paltrow has a best-selling cookbook! Who knew?)

If Christie could cast himself as a success story -- someone who struggled with his weight for years and then decided to do something about it -- that would be a very appealing potential message.

No matter what, weight is and always will be a topic of conversation among strategists and voters when it comes to Christie and his future political prospects. Which is what makes his decision to undergo lapband surgery so fascinating.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Aaron Blake | May 7, 2013