New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie comforts Kerri Berean in Little Ferry, N.J.,… (David Gard / The Star-Ledger…)
Republicans seem to have no lack of understanding about how badly their presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, damaged the party brand by demonizing a good chunk of the electorate as “victims” and “gift” grabbers — the slothful masses who just can’t wait to take a government handout.
The party faithful might also want to reconsider their recent demonization of one of their previous favorites, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, if they hope to recapture the heart of America. And have a better shot in the next presidential election.
The New York Times’ Michael Barbaro reported Tuesday on how the immensely likable, plain-talking governor remains persona non grata among GOP mainstays following the lost presidential election. His crime: suggesting that President Obama performed admirably in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
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Make no mistake, Democrats would also be hounding one of their own who heaped praise on a Republican in the waning hours of a close presidential campaign. Imagine if California Gov. Jerry Brown had waited until late October to say he viewed Mitt Romney as a principled, post-partisan leader who could work with one and all. He would need a team of bodyguards to move safely in the deep-blue state Capitol.
But this is one of those moments when tried-and-true partisan hackery and the thoughts of average Americans diverge in a big way. The rapprochement between Obama and Christie — who praised the president’s Sandy response as “outstanding,” “incredibly supportive” and a “great credit” to leadership — pleased a lot of ordinary people. Exit polls found that roughly 1 in 4 voters called Obama’s response to the giant storm an “important factor” in their vote. Christie’s warm embrace of the president presumably went a long way toward affirming that Obama acted presidential, not political, during the crisis.
Christie may have been thinking about his own reelection prospects next year against Newark Mayor Cory Booker. So perhaps his motivations were not pure as the waves driven across the Atlantic City boardwalk. But most New Jerseyans will see his work with Obama through a positive lens. They won’t care why the two men worked together, just that they did.
That’s what even the most cynical and fatigued citizens expect political leaders to do during true crises — to put their differences aside (Christie had said not long prior to the storm that Obama flailed desperately to find the “light switch” of leadership) and get things done.
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One need only go back to 2005 and the uneven to invisible response to Hurricane Katrina for a model of what Americans won’t abide. FEMA and the federal government, under Republican President George W. Bush, stalled in getting help to the residents of New Orleans.
Louisiana's governor at the time, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a Democrat, feuded with Bush. When federal aide arrived, her state moved too slowly to distribute it to its increasingly desperate citizens. Yet evidence emerged that the Republicans in Washington had sought to embarrass the Democrat and that the Bush administration moved more rapidly to help Republican-governed Mississippi.
In short, the Katrina response embarrassed most of those who came anywhere near it. Any politician paying attention should have learned that the overt politicization of tragedy does not amuse the victims. They tend not to forget. Gov. Christie internalized that lesson, especially after he got walloped in the press for being on vacation in Florida when a massive blizzard shut down his state in early 2011.
New Jerseyans surely appreciate that distinction. Republicans nationally would be wise to absorb it, too. The more they spurn their onetime favorite, Christie, the more they look like the party that just lost the last election by focusing on their own and shunning everyone else.
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MORE COMMENTARY FROM JAMES RAINEY:
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