The Slatest

Chris Christie’s Debate Strategy: Interrupting Good Conversations to Talk About Himself

At one point near the end of Thursday night’s Republican debate in South Carolina, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz got into a detail-oriented argument about taxes. Given that a Republican primary is by nature a competition between people who mostly agree about subjects like taxes, and that Rubio and Cruz are two of the current primary’s leading contenders, one would think that the exchange was a useful, even illuminating moment for Republican viewers trying to decide whom to vote for. Chris Christie felt differently, declaring to moderator Maria Bartiromo (who was turning the conversation away from Cruz/Rubio to ask a question to Donald Trump) that he needed to get a word in:

CHRISTIE: Maria, I’d like to interrupt this debate on the floor of the Senate to actually answer the question you asked, which was on entitlements. Do you remember that, everybody? This was a question on entitlements.

Yes, Christie was upset that Cruz and Rubio had been debating at a debate, and felt he had a more important point to make, which was:

CHRISTIE: I’m the only one up on this stage who back in April put forward a detailed entitlement reform plan that will save over $1 trillion, save Social Security, save Medicare, and avoid—avoid what Hillary Rodham Clinton will do to you.

Thus were the top three candidates on stage interrupted and/or disparaged so the sixth-place candidate could refer vaguely to a document he released eight months ago. 

Looking back at the transcripts of the other four main-stage GOP debates that Christie has participated in, it becomes clear that this was not just a spontaneous outburst: This is his entire strategy. In each debate, Christie has made a point of jumping into a conversation—between candidates or between a moderator and a candidate—to assert that whatever is being discussed is a frivolous distraction from the real issues.

  • In the first debate, Christie became fed up with Rand Paul’s argument that citizens should be concerned about invasive government surveillance of electronic communications—an argument that, as it happens, many Republicans are sympathetic to—calling it “hot air,” better fit for a “subcommittee” hearing, that no one would take seriously if they, like Christie, had ever been “responsible for protecting the lives of the American people” as a prosecutor.
  • In the second debate, it was an animated discussion between Trump and Carly Fiorina that set Christie off. “Jake, listen,” the New Jersey governor said to moderator Jake Tapper. “While I’m as entertained as anyone by this personal back-and-forth about the history of Donald and Carly’s career, for the 55-year-old construction worker out in that audience tonight who doesn’t have a job, who can’t fund his child’s education, I’ve got to tell you the truth. They could care less about your careers. … You’re both successful people. Congratulations. You know who’s not successful? The middle class in this country who’s getting plowed over by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Let’s start talking about those issues tonight and stop this childish back-and-forth between the two of you.”  
  • Moderator Carl Quintanilla asked Jeb Bush a question about fantasy football gambling during the third debate, and Christie was outraged: “We have $19 trillion in debt. We have people out of work. We have ISIS and al Qaeda attacking us. And we’re talking about fantasy football?” The promotion of sports gambling, incidentally, has been a major preoccupation of the Christie administration in New Jersey.
  • Christie didn’t make the main stage in the fourth debate, but he was back in the fifth to complain about a discussion of privacy and surveillance that involved Paul, Rubio, and Cruz. Said the governor: “Listen, I want to talk to the audience at home for a second. If your eyes are glazing over like mine, this is what it’s like to be on the floor of the United States Senate. I mean, endless debates about how many angels on the head of a pin from people who’ve never had to make a consequential decision in an executive position.” Then he talked about how he’d been a federal prosecutor.

And then there was last night.

Christie’s strategy is not prima facie stupid. Congress is unpopular, and unlike his opponents who are legislators or business leaders, the former prosecutor/governor has experience in executive government positions. Why not highlight those facts via the persona of the no-nonsense guy who Gets Things Done? As you can see in the video above, Christie’s confrontational remarks sometimes go over well with the actual debate audience that’s in the room with the candidates and moderators—but more broadly, nothing he’s done in a debate (or elsewhere) has gotten traction. Voters don’t seem to currently care much about executive experience; moreover, Christie is actually really super-unpopular in New Jersey and only prosecuted one terror case, nine years ago, that was even moderately high-profile, so he’s not speaking with that much credibility. He’s also been inept in execution, interrupting lively exchanges to claim that no one cares about the issues being discussed, which is self-evidently not true. And if you’re going to try to be the guy who gets to the heart of the matter, you’ve got to, you know, actually get to the heart of the matter—but Christie doesn’t follow up his scolding interruptions by advocating actual ideas or positions. What would the Christie administration do about domestic terrorism or taxes? It’s not clear, and given that his opponents do associate themselves with specific plans (Trump’s wall, Cruz’s tax cuts, Paul’s strict civil libertarianism), Christie ends up just sounding more like he’s missing the point than the people he’s claiming are missing the point.