Look, I’m sorry, but New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie cannot be president: He is just too fat. Maybe, if he runs for president and we get to know him, we will overlook this awkward issue because we are so impressed with the way he stands up to teachers’ unions. But we shouldn’t overlook it — unless he goes on a diet and shows he can stick to it.
That’s not a very liberal attitude. It’s discriminatory. It’s patronizing. It’s coercive. What business is it of ours whether Christie weighs too much (and who gets to define “too much”)? Why should we even care, as long as we like his policies? These points will all be made by political commentators if word goes out to the vast right-wing conspiracy that it’s time to get behind Christie.
Let me save you the trouble, boys and girls. I can write that column myself: “Liberals, who embrace diversity of all other kinds — who demand quotas for transgender kindergarten teachers in public schools — these selfsame liberals have the unmitigated gall to encourage discrimination against a truly oppressed group: people of weight.”
There is a theory, of course, that being fat would benefit Christie by authenticating his portrayal of Everyman — just a regular fella, like so many others, who’s sick to death of Washington and its taxing ways. Being overweight establishes Christie’s bona fides as a populist, and as someone indifferent to the superficial trends that sweep through Cambridge or West Hollywood. Mitt Romney’s excruciating attempts to be a regular guy can only help Christie establish himself as the no-baloney candidate (as can, oddly, eating bologna).
It isn’t yet the case that every American voter is obese, but we’re making remarkable progress on that front. Many of us are in bad shape in ways that threaten our health. There is a vast army of the overweight ready to fight for a fellow sufferer if given a chance. Nebraska Sen. Roman Hruska once famously asked why mediocre people didn’t deserve representation on the Supreme Court. Why don’t fat people deserve a president every now and then? There hasn’t been a truly fat one since William Howard Taft left office in 1913.
That’s the theory. I don’t buy it. Too many Americans may be heavy, but they don’t define themselves by that condition (at least not in a positive way) or automatically bond with fellow overeaters. Republicans insist that raising taxes on the rich is bad politics because most Americans hope to be rich eventually. Most overweight people hope to be thin eventually. So appealing to them in this way may not work.
Actually, claiming that being seriously overweight establishes some kind of bond with ordinary folks is a bit of an insult to ordinary folks, most of whom are not obese. You’re on firmer ground claiming a bond with all humanity on the basis that the flesh is weak. On approximately this basis, we (at least I) have forgiven President Barack Obama his secret smoking (oh, of course he does) and some people (including me again, I guess) have forgiven President Bill Clinton his … well, you know. So why should Christie’s weight be more than we can bear in a president? Why should it even be a legitimate issue if he runs?
One reason is that a presidential candidate should be judged on behavior and character, not just on policies — especially because the chance these days of any actual policies being enacted is slim. (Most of us, fortunately, aren’t judged this way — at least not in this life. But presidents are.)
Controlling what you eat and how much is not easy, and it’s harder for some people than for others. But it’s not as difficult as curing a chemical addiction. With a determined, disciplined effort, Christie could thin down, and he should — because the obesity epidemic is real and dangerous. And the president inevitably sets an example.
Unfortunately, the symbolism of Christie’s weight problem goes way past the issue of obesity itself. It is just a too- perfect symbol of our country at the moment, with appetites out of control and discipline near zilch. And it’s not just symbolism. We don’t yet know much about Chris Christie. He certainly makes all the right noises about fiscal discipline and seems to have done well so far as governor of New Jersey. Perhaps Christie is the one to help us get our national appetites under control. But it would help if he got his own under control first.
Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist.