How Chris Christie flubbed his big chance at a comeback

The Republican governor of New Jersey took a huge swing at Ebola, but ended up knocking himself out

Chris Christie
(Image credit: (HENRY ROMERO/Reuters/Corbis))

New York City handled its first case of Ebola with aplomb. As soon as the victim, Dr. Craig Spencer, notified authorities of his symptoms, he was whisked into isolation at Bellevue Hospital, while health officials tracked his previous movements to determine whether anyone else had been infected. The city's "carefully planned response was a world apart from the scene that unfolded in a Dallas hospital last month," wrote The New York Times. As a result, Ebola in New York City has so far been restricted to Spencer.

But if the city's health department exhibited a degree of competence and professionalism that has been all too uncommon in the U.S.'s response to Ebola, the same cannot be said of the two governors leading the tristate area's defense against the virus. Late last week, Democrat Andrew Cuomo of New York and Republican Chris Christie of New Jersey threw everyone for a loop by instituting a mandatory quarantine for all health workers flying into the New York area who had previously come into contact with Ebola victims. The move caused an uproar when a nurse, Kaci Hickox, was isolated in a tent outside a New Jersey hospital, and dared to call Christie out for his "appalling" behavior. Days later, Christie reversed course, and Hickox was released.

In the meantime, both governors have been widely panned for haphazardly rolling out a confusing, medically bunk plan that reeked of political opportunism. While Cuomo seems to be slinking back to the pre-quarantine status quo — and leaving his erstwhile ally in the lurch — Christie has tried to battle the bad press with his usual brew of stubbornness spiked with bravado. "They don't want to admit that we're right and they were wrong," Christie told Today, speaking of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "I'm sorry about that."

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He later went so far as to invite Hickox to sue him, saying, "Whatever. Get in line. I've been sued lots of times before."

Depending on your tastes, this is either Christie at his most compelling or the latest evidence that he would be a rather tiresome president, an office that he is very seriously interested in occupying. But as he continues his take-all-comers approach to the media fallout, it's worth considering how he got into this mess in the first place, particularly since the Ebola panic offered Christie a rare opportunity to reintroduce himself to a national audience that may have soured on his brand of combative politics in the post-Bridgegate era.

Even if we accept that Christie and Cuomo were genuinely freaked out by the possibility of Ebola-infected doctors inundating New York's commuter system, it is still curious that they rushed to come up with a plan without consulting the CDC or the White House — or seemingly any medical professionals at all. That it was such a flop with the medical community only makes the quarantine all the more suspicious, a seemingly tough-on-Ebola stance that was empty of any substance.

Benjamin Wallace-Wells at New York offered an elegant analysis of Christie's thinking, noting his predilection for fiercely protecting his flock at any cost, even if it means, in the case of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, siding with a president who is anathema to Republicans in the midst of a close election. Wallace-Wells then tied that personal quality to Christie's unique position within the GOP:

Among Republicans, Christie is the great communitarian, the wagon-circler and defender of the in-group. It's no accident that before he was waylaid by the bridge scandal, Christie was programmatically picking fights with Rand Paul as a way of beginning his 2016 presidential campaign — the libertarian in that corner, the communitarian in this one. At times during the past few years it has seemed like Christie is heading for a truly great political accomplishment, modernizing conservative communitarianism, expanding the in-group so that it is no longer simply just white, Christian, male, and socially repressive. One of his essential talents is the ability to recognize, in the noise and manias of current events, when an alarm bell has rung, when the community is being threatened from outside, and to rise to their defense with a boxer's readiness. Sometimes, as during the storm, this comprehension has made him a hero. At others, as when he got in the face of a public-school teacher, it has betrayed him, lapsing into a petty and vengeful partisanship that few outsiders can stomach. [New York]

This is convincing — but probably too generous to Christie. A more cynical take would go something like this: Since Bridgegate, Christie has struggled to repair the damage done to what was once one of the strongest political brands in the country. The Ebola panic gave him such an opportunity, and it seemed to call for the same playbook that catapulted Christie to national fame in the first place. Christie would join with a Democratic ally to take on an impersonal, deadly enemy — after all, there's nothing partisan about a virus. He would bulldoze anything that stood between him and his goal of protecting his constituents, even brave nurses who fight Ebola for a living.

Most importantly, all of this would serve as a rebuke of how President Obama and the federal government were handling the situation. It would bolster his reputation the way Hurricane Sandy did, except Christie would be on the right side of the conservative base this time — just in time for him to test the waters of a presidential run in 2016.

Of course, these two narratives can coexist. Christie the communitarian does not preclude Christie the calculating pol. But regardless, his response to Ebola reveals a man who is incapable of controlling himself. He either marshaled all the resources at his disposal to fight phantoms, or implemented a counterproductive policy for the sole purpose of winning back estranged conservatives.

In this case, Christie would have been far better off reining in his impulses and leaving it to the pros.

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Ryu Spaeth

Ryu Spaeth is deputy editor at Follow him on Twitter.