Chris Christie’s epic rant is about so much more than disaster relief

Jena McGregor
Columnist January 3, 2013

Chris Christie’s rant against House Speaker John Boehner Wednesday was one for the ages. Pundits and journalists alike were agape over the New Jersey’s governor’s willingness to name names and eviscerate his own party’s leadership after Boehner failed to bring a bill providing aid for Super storm Sandy to the floor Tuesday night. Called “political gold” and “the world's GREATEST press conference,” Christie’s tongue-lashing during a press conference was severe, unrestrained and within minutes, captivating enough to be trending globally on Twitter.

It was also effective: Shortly after Christie’s remarks, House Republicans set a vote for Friday.

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. View Archive

Anyone who listened in on the nearly 40-minute press conference got an earful. Christie blamed the House Republicans for “toxic internal politics.” He called the process by which they were governing “disappointing and disgusting to watch.” With words that were blunt even by Christie’s standards, the governor focused the blame squarely on representatives from his own party: “Americans deserve better than another example of a government that has forgotten who they are there to serve and why,” he told reporters. “Shame on you. Shame on Congress.”

Christie’s epic rant got so much attention because of what it was: That rare occasion in our polarized political system when someone as prominent as a governor, keynote convention speaker and buzzed-about presidential hopeful chooses to lambaste his own party’s leadership. When someone flouts the tradition of spouting lockstep talking points and parroting party lines that has come to define today’s politics—whatever his motivations might be—it’s unusual enough that we sit up and take notice.

But Christie’s tirade went viral not only for who he was criticizing, but for what he said. With his frank words, he gave voice to the frustrations many voters feel about our so-called leaders over any number of issues besides just disaster relief. Coming in the wake of the fiscal cliff’s embarrassing show of partisan bickering and senseless intransigence, Christie’s diatribe struck a chord with voters far beyond the boundaries of his state. Who among us doesn’t agree that “Americans are tired of the palace intrigue and political partisanship of this Congress which puts one-upsmanship ahead of the lives of the citizens who sent these people to Washington D.C.”?

Christie may be accused of grandstanding, trying to appeal to Democratic voters in a blue state when he’s up for re-election for next year, or positioning himself as the independent-minded alternative to the far right in advance of the 2016 Republican primary. But what makes his message so attractive to so many—his job approval rating climbed as high as 77 percent after Sandy—is his willingness to bluntly give voice to the utter frustration voters feel with the state of dysfunction that Washington has become.

Of course, I don’t know whether Christie has real plans to run for president in 2016. (Talk about a bully pulpit.) If he does, he will need to move beyond the bluster and show how he can change the political quagmire that Congress and Washington have become. Voters may relish his tell-it-like-it-is honesty when it comes to beating up on Congress, but think twice over how presidential such swagger may appear.

Either way, Christie is onto something. As Ron Fournier writes in The National Journal, “the smartest move in politics today is to move against Washington and the two major parties.” People are fed up enough that the person they put their faith in may not be a party favorite, or the guy willing to fight back against their party’s leadership, but the one most able to give voice to the frustrations they feel.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for The Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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