Since coming to Washington in the 1970s (or as I tell my grandchildren, the 17th century) I have learned what qualities make a great leader: a genuine and authentic persona, an optimistic view of the future and a can-do attitude. Ronald Reagan had that, Bill Clinton had that and with this week's resounding victory, Chris Christie has proved that New Jersey voters believe he has that too.
There are very few policy issues that Governor Christie and I agree on. But there is a certain kind of personal magnetism to him that appeals to me, even though I'm a Democrat. Looking at the election autopsy it seems I'm not the only one. He got 32 percent of registered New Jersey Democrats, 57 percent of women voters, 51 percent of Latinos, and 21 percent of African Americans (a remarkable number in the post-civil rights era).
Another quality I respect in Governor Christie is his ability to communicate, again setting aside the substantive differences in what is being communicated. My old boss Bill Clinton was one of the best communicators I have ever seen. He was part Baptist preacher and part policy wonk but always authentic. Governor Christie's style is a bit different (and a lot louder and hotter) but his ability to connect with all different types of people is also effective. The average American voter is often derided by the inside-the-beltway crowd as being ill informed, emotional and apathetic. From my experience voters come in all different shapes and sizes but the one thing the American public certainly has is a great antenna for, lacking a better word, BS. The way Governor Christie uses language that resonates with real people, even people who naturally might disagree with him, and mostly avoids the generic and rhetorical political speak that many Americans abhor, is a crucial component of his success.
Positivity is another element of leadership. When Americans turn on the TV and see political advertising, debates or watch any of the 24 hour news channels, most of the time the message is negative, critical and depressing. Americans, particularly in turbulent times, want positivity and leaders who offer solutions. As the great Sam Rayburn once said, "any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one." As my dad used to say, people would much rather do business with an optimist than a pessimist. So would most Americans.
Great leaders like FDR, Reagan and Clinton embraced pragmatism in order to advance the national interest. This earned them the respect of Americans regardless of their party affiliation. To be a great leader in our nation one has to understand and emulate the core values that define us as Americans. One of the defining characteristics of the American mentality is a desire to improve things through practical approaches. Governor Christie is a successful Republican in a heavily Democratic state. He's not a saint, and he does have his enemies. But he has shown he can be bipartisan and pragmatic by working on things like urban education reform with New Jersey Democrats like Cory Booker, and particularly his embrace of President Obama and federal assistance as his state was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy. Today's politics of negativity, ideology and vitriol makes improving or changing anything very difficult, which makes leadership skills an absolute necessity for anyone who wants to bring people together and get things done in our enfeebled political system.
None of this is to say that any of Governor Christie's policies are the correct ones, but he does demonstrate what it takes to lead. Color me impressed.