As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie continues to endure a storm of criticism over his handling of the state’s mandatory Ebola quarantine policy on Tuesday, the famously pugnacious governor has responded with one of his most masterful political strengths: his inimitable personal style.
Governor Christie’s no-nonsense, defiant, and tough-guy panache has generally served him well in a crisis, and at one time helped vault the moderate Republican to the top of GOP 2016 contenders. His unwavering leadership during superstorm Sandy – in which he worked with, and even praised, Democrats like President Obama – gave him an appealing bipartisan edge.
So the Ebola crisis now presents Christie with the opportunity to do what he does best: Lead in his own way, critics be darned. It might possibly even jumpstart a once-promising presidential campaign, derailed by the Bridgegate scandal.
And Christie has been vintagely defiant this week as the White House, American Civil Liberties Union, and even the secretary general of the United Nations and others pile on their critiques of his state’s mandatory 21-day Ebola quarantine policy, set forth last week in a surprise press conference with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).
Both governors said last Friday that they would “automatically quarantine” any individual, including health workers returning from the front lines of the Ebola battle in West Africa, if he or she had direct contact with patients.
“The American public believes this is common sense and we’re not moving an inch,” Christie said on NBC’s Today on Tuesday morning. “Our policy hasn’t changed and our policy will not change.”
Yet both governors seemed to retreat from the policy a bit – which was seemingly put together without careful protocols or planning with local health officials and hospitals – after the policy’s first test went embarrassingly awry.
A nurse who helped treat Ebola patients in West Africa was quarantined in a tent for three days, given only a portable toilet but no shower or television. But, after an uproar, instead of a mandatory 21-day confinement, the nurse was allowed to return to her home in Maine.
"I didn’t reverse my decision," Christie insisted Monday while campaigning for Gov. Rick Scott (R) in Florida. “She hadn’t had any symptoms for 24 hours. And she tested negative for Ebola. So there was no reason to keep her."
But critics note that this 24-hour standard had never been publicly stated and appears to be at odds with the principle of a mandatory 21-day quarantine. Governor Cuomo also clarified his state’s policy, saying workers could be quarantined at home and would be compensated for lost income.
Christie’s presidential aspirations have gotten a boost this year as he's served as head of the Republican Governors Association, raising record amount of funds for his fellow GOP governors – and hence building the kind of political capital necessary for running for president.
But the governor’s handling of the Ebola quarantine has angered his longtime critics from the right. Radio host Rush Limbaugh said Christie caved to the wishes of Mr. Obama by releasing the quarantined nurse.
“I think the quarantine dance showed that Christie isn’t ready for prime time,” says Ken Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College in Manhattan. “He screwed up at almost every step and finally antagonized [Matt] Drudge and Limbaugh by walking it back. It may work with some conservative voters but it has costs elsewhere.”
Medical experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called the 21-day quarantine policy “draconian.” The quarantined nurse, now at home in Maine, said her confinement was “inhumane,” and is mulling a lawsuit against the governor.
“I think, as most of you know, this administration takes a pretty aggressive view towards its ability to take steps that it needs to take,” Christie told reporters last week. “If I become discontent, I will take whatever steps are necessary to protect the public health of the people of New Jersey, and if someone wants to sue me over it, they can.”