A lot was made of the two donuts, the two favorite jokes and the accomplished comedic timing of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's nearly 30-minute appearance on the David Letterman Show.
But a less-discussed part occurred late in the appearance, when Letterman asked him about Hurricane Sandy and, specifically, why House Speaker John Boehner held up relief legislation to Christie's battered state. "43,000 families homeless, and [the Sandy relief bill] had to line up behind the fiscal cliff," Letterman said. "Well it did," Christie responded. "And I made my thoughts known clearly to him, and I was actually, you know, less gentle privately than I was publicly."
This is the conundrum that is Chris Christie. He gets that average voters don't necessarily understand fiscal policy, the entitlements crisis or the cost of regulations. But they do get that 43,000 families were homeless and needed help.
It would not have occurred to many on the right to put hurricane relief above the fiscal cliff in early January. They were fighting what they honestly saw as bigger battles with larger and more enduring stakes. But Christie is untroubled by fealty to these battles or the principles that underlie them. Which is why he, alone among the 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls, has demonstrated appeal to a variety of hitherto-hard-to-reach constituencies – self-identified Democrats, women and voters 30 or younger.
Christie is widely expected to cruise to re-election this November. His approval ratings in New Jersey are hovering around the 70s, and the Democrats have mounted only token opposition. But elsewhere in the country, he is remembered for the "Obama hug" – the infamous moments he spent on camera in friendly embrace with the president and the nice words he offered on the president's visit to coordinate Sandy aid.
He had been less than helpful to the Mitt Romney campaign throughout – he gave the keynote speech at the Republican National Convention and mentioned the party's presidential candidate just seven times. But this was a final and huge slight, and more than a few Republicans believe Christie not only tried to use the president's popularity against the House of Representatives to force a vote on Sandy aid but that his actions – coming in the final days before the election – tilted the race in the president's favor.
He never will return to the good graces of a lot of Republicans. But he is working hard to travel the country, mend fences where possible and keep his options open. And Republicans would be wise to at least learn the lessons of his appeal.
For instance, much has been made of the governor's weight. We supposedly like our politicians trim and fit. So what has Christie done? He had gastric band weight-loss surgery – the procedure kept a secret so as to attract maximum press attention. He can't become thin in a day, but, in a day, he did address the issue and appear to be working aggressively toward a solution. A lot of time bought.
Part and parcel of the Obama Embrace was The Fleece – the fleece vest Christie wore throughout the Sandy ordeal. Now, his staff has produced a seven minute video that purports to be a "search" for the fleece. It makes cultural references. It includes familiar faces – James Carville, Alec Baldwin, Jon Bon Jovi and others make cameos. It shows a governor confident about his place in the pantheon, unafraid to make fun of himself and willing to think outside the box to project his brand.
Christie understands what few inside the Beltway do – the power of rational ignorance. Most of us don't take the time to find out who runs the Environmental Protection Agency or how, but we do understand people in need after a hurricane and the battle against the bulge.
Christie maintains he did the surgery for his family, but it was a good political move nonetheless. It got him free media for something that has nothing to do with being governor and that casts him in a positive light. But then, he gets pop culture, entertainment, music and sports – the things Americans actually do care about – and the importance of burnishing his "cultural image" first and his political image second.
He understands what a recent Princeton study revealed – that news networks, with their relentless focus on partisan angles of all stories, do not in fact influence a lot of people. Fewer than 10 percent of voters watch and even fewer vote based on what they see. It is other shows – Letterman, Saturday Night Live, big sporting events – that capture Americans' imaginations. In other words, he understands what got the man he met on the tarmac that day elected twice – that a story and charisma beat the dogged pursuit of sensible policy almost every time.