In 1976, Carter presented himself to the voters as many things, all of them complementary. He was a man without pretense or pretext, a down-to-earth fellow—and an honest one. “I will never lie to you,” he told the American people. After the crucible of Watergate, this was a promise we wanted to believe in. Carter was also devout, a “born-again” Christian, in the parlance of the time. Perhaps a little pious for some voters’ tastes, but he was a straight arrow, a square, a Southern gentleman. Not a macho type who issued tough-guy threats or used coarse language. For another politician it would have been nothing, but it made people wonder about Jimmy Carter. Who was he, really?
This is the problem Chris Christie now faces. The whole reason he was courting New Jersey mayors last autumn regardless of party affiliation was to show the world he was a new kind of Republican, one who could work effectively with Democrats while retaining core conservative principles. But the Fort Lee traffic scandal suggests that the whole time he was doing something else: namely, threatening Democrats, and lashing out at them petulantly when he didn’t get his way. That is not a trait voters find lacking among Washington politicians now.
Deliberately creating a traffic jam, as Christie’s aides did, posed a second problem for the governor: It’s completely at odds with his Hurricane Sandy image. When that storm devastated the Jersey shore days before the 2012 presidential, Christie was so much the loyal Jersey guy that he ceased campaigning for Mitt Romney, instead embracing Barack Obama while welcoming the federal assistance the president was promising. Yet all the while it turns out that if you happen to live in a New Jersey town that won’t endorse the guy, his aides are willing to make your life a living hell. That’s Christie’s version of the Jimmy Carter problem. Which guy is he?
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