Some Preliminary Thoughts on the Thickness of Politicians' Skins

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Politicians are guaranteed to be both loved and hated.  How they deal with their fans and their detractors goes a long way toward determining their degree of success, as well as defining their legacies.  Recently, The New York Times ran an article, "Stories Add Up As Bully Image Trails Christie," in which a reporter laid out a long list of allegations that portrayed New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as a petty tyrant, a bully who is both imperious and thin-skinned to the point of silliness.  Although Christie has not admitted to the various allegations, everything that we have seen in his public life is certainly consistent with the unflattering picture painted in the article.

The most serious issue discussed in the story is that Christie retaliated against a small-town mayor by having state transportation officials deliberately create a hellish traffic backup in the mayor's town for four days.  (The town just happens to be next to the George Washington Bridge, which is a critical lifeline into Manhattan.)  The mayor's transgression?  In a general election race in which Christie was not seriously challenged by the Democrats (Christie's challenger essentially being orphaned by her own party), the Democratic mayor of one tiny community did not endorse Christie.  The official who engaged in the retaliation has already resigned, and although Christie continues to bluster, the story is not going away.

To a certain degree, this story simply confirmed what anyone who watches Republican politics already knows: Bullying the weak is in vogue.  Christie created a sensation among extreme conservatives a few years ago by ruthlessly humiliating a public school teacher at a town hall meeting, because she had the temerity to try to argue that school teachers are not overcompensated.  This sneering condescension by Christie, in turn, mirrored former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who would sometimes shout at and belittle callers to the mayor's radio call-in show.  It takes a real man to do that!

My Verdict colleague John Dean has argued that what is now called the Tea Party is merely the current incarnation of a sub-category of Americans who crave authoritarian rule.  Christie, and Giuliani before him, are merely raw NY/NJ versions of the kind of politician who thinks that being strong means lashing out at people, and whose contempt for anyone who is perceived as weak thrills the kind of people who view themselves a superior to the "losers" in the world.

But what I found especially interesting about the bill of particulars against Christie, in the Times article noted above, was the final example of Christie's pettiness.  Apparently, a firefighter's union official had spoken on a radio show, saying that the unions and the governor had been talking past one another.  Pretty standard stuff, and hardly critical of Christie.  But one of Christie closest allies, who at that point was a state senator, called the union official.  As the Times reported, Christie's lieutenant was calling "with a message from the governor, and then used an obscene phrase to describe what the governor thought he should do."  The union official described the conversation: “What he said a couple of times was: ‘The governor told me to make sure you don’t get this message mixed up; say these exact words.’ "

What are we to make of a politician who, if this report is accurate, responds to non-criticism by having a close friend (who is an elected public official) call the non-offender to tell him that the governor wants him to f*#@ himself?  This is certainly a different category of bullying from the public browbeating that made Christie a hero on the right.  What could possibly be going on?

I am not expressing surprise that there are people who are extremely volatile and petty.  What surprises me is that such a person can have any success in politics.  Admittedly, Richard Nixon had a great career in politics before his obsession with his "enemies" brought him down.  Even Nixon, however, seemed to be targeting people who actually were causing him difficulties.  What seems odd is that any politician would care enough to attack people for the most minor slight.

More broadly, everyone expects politicians to use the levers of power to reward their supporters and to punish perceived bad behavior.  Lyndon Johnson was famous for calling people who had angered him on the carpet, and for embarrassing them by mispronouncing their names and treating them as if they were unimportant.  Indeed, some people have faulted the Obama White House for not being bare-knuckled enough.  For example, during Obama's first term, when now-former Senator Blanche Lincoln publicly broke with the President and Democrats on health care reform (and on other issues), liberals wondered why Obama did not let Lincoln know in no uncertain terms that there is a cost for disloyalty.

On the other hand, it is also a staple of politics that one must often have a thick skin and a short memory.  Senator John McCain reportedly warned Majority Harry Reid in a face-to-face moment that he (McCain) was about to eviscerate Reid in a speech, whereupon Reid laughed and said that he expected as much.  Even within parties, everyone knows that today's opponent is tomorrow's possible ally, and carrying grudges merely gets in the way.  One can heed JFK's advice, "Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names," without being either a doormat or a thug.

Most recently, I have been amazed to discover that the Obama people -- who have been so frequently unwilling to play hardball -- can be extremely thin-skinned.  We all remember former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs's unhinged complaint that liberal critics of Obama "ought to be drug tested."  That, however, could be dismissed as mere exasperation on the part of an administration spokesman who was trying to defend center-right policies to a liberal base.

What I have learned, however, is that there are people on the left who are now genuinely worried about opposing Obama on matters like the debt ceiling, because they do not want to be seen by the White House as unsupportive.  This is not merely current politicians, but also the think tanks that view themselves as left of center.  Apparently, the Obama people do not appreciate the value of "cover from the left," but instead will engage in petty retaliation against people who support a different strategy from the Administration's.

I can understand that there is a certain in terrorem effect that a politician must maintain.  Giving out a few speeding tickets for people who are clocked at 57 miles per hour, after all, helps to reduce the number of people who might risk doing 80.  Even so, it is surprising to see the level of pettiness that even the most bland disagreement can evoke from big-time politicians.  I rarely think of myself as naive, but I had no idea how small these people could be.  It almost makes academic fights over office assignments look noble.