By Cathleen Decker
9:00 AM EDT, October 30, 2013
No politician would admit to wanting disaster to strike. But, quite apart from the pain it inflicts, disasters can be a boon to a political leader.
It was true in 1994, when California Gov. Pete Wilson’s response to the Northridge earthquake helped redefine him politically and propel him to reelection.
It was true one year later, when President Clinton went from insisting he was still relevant to, in fact, being relevant after a bomb leveled much of the federal building in Oklahoma City.
It was true in 2001, when an untested President Bush ushered in years of popularity when he raised a defiant bullhorn in the still-smoking ruins of the World Trade Center.
And it was true on Tuesday, when the first anniversary of Superstorm Sandy’s devastation of the Eastern Seaboard allowed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie the chance to tout what has become a slam-dunk reelection and outline the prospective contours of a 2016 presidential bid.
The downside to Christie as a politician has been his bullish, and sometimes boorish, demeanor. But in crisis, voters tend not to mind a little bullishness being forwarded on their behalf. When the ground cracks or the sea spirals ashore, voters can go from seeing an elected leader as grating to a godsend.
Christie on Tuesday barraged across the airwaves — the national morning shows, a bunch of local television appearances — and then careened around New Jersey in a 10-stop celebration of the state’s recovery in the year since the storm hit.
At the third stop, in Moonachie, he recounted the words earlier that morning of the pastor at the aptly named New Hope Baptist Church in Newark. The themes were cooperation and the superiority of his state — his approach, really — over that of Washington, D.C.
Quoting what he emphasized were the words of pastor Joe Carter, Christie said, “When the lights went out, nobody cared what color you were; when you were hungry, nobody cared whether it was somebody who lived in the city or suburbs or out of state who was bringing you food to feed your family. He said when you were cold and someone offered you a warm place to sleep, no one cared if that person who offered you the warm place to sleep was a Democrat or a Republican. That was the spirit of Sandy to him, that our state came together in a way that inspires people.”
And then came the jab. Of course, he noted, this was the pastor’s commentary, “not mine”: “He was hoping that the spirit of Sandy from the New Hope Baptist Church today would make its way through Newark on Route 280, get itself on the New Jersey Turnpike” — laughter began to build in his audience — “and free of tolls would head its way down to Washington, D.C., to infect some of those people down there as well, because they need an infection, really.”
Not surprisingly, given the emphasis the governor put on those themes, they dovetail precisely with those of his political campaign.
As an ad the governor’s campaign released last week put it, Christie is “an example of what it means to be bipartisan for the good of the people ... and in our most difficult moment, he helped bring out the best in all of us.” The last words were narrated to scenes from the Sandy devastation.
Christie has the good luck, if it can be called luck, to have disaster strike and the recovery take hold in concert with a reelection campaign that ends with the Nov. 5 election.
His neighboring state executive, Andrew Cuomo of New York, doesn’t face voters again until 2014, and Cuomo's national presence on the Sandy anniversary was less obvious. (Cuomo did, however, spend the day touring LaGuardia airport and the World Trade Center sites, both of which took major hits from the storm as it walloped multiple states.)
It’s far from certain how much influence Sandy would have on a national campaign by Christie. Just a year after the earthquake helped Wilson win reelection, the California governor was bowing out of the 1996 presidential contest, ruined by an inability to raise money and lingering health issues. Bush rose in popularity but ended his two terms a hugely unpopular president, in part because of the mishandling of another natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina.
The Jersey shore right now is a patchwork of success and work in progress, though Christie on Tuesday sought to accent the former over the latter. But if the area has recovered substantially by 2016, it could serve as a template for a candidate running as one who surmounted the Washington malaise and got things done, even if he had to consort with Democrats to do it.
That, at least, was what Chris Christie seemed to be saying Tuesday.
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