In yesterday’s Washington Post, written at the height of the Bridgegate media feeding frenzy, Chris Cilizza claimed that despite the blows New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had absorbed in the last week, he must still be considered the leading contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Perhaps so, but only in the sense that a person who has suffered a fatal wound will sometimes continue functioning for a time before the final collapse. The merits of any such ranking published two years before any votes are counted can be debated with impunity. Moreover, eliminating Christie at this point would force Cilizza–or any other pundit who likes to write lists of this kind–to promote potential candidates such as Rand Paul, Scott Walker, or Ted Cruz (who are, respectively, numbers two, three, and four on the list) to the top spot who currently have no business claiming the title of frontrunner.
But even after a day when Christie’s troubles dominated the Sunday morning talk shows and it may have seemed things couldn’t get any worse for the governor, they have. The media pile-on is continuing with the New York Times running a story at the top of its website this afternoon about Christie’s administration playing hardball with Mayor Steven Fulop of Jersey City in a manner reminiscent of the way it did with Mayor Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee, the intended victim of the bizarre bridge lane closings scheme. Perhaps even more troubling is the news that the Federal Government intends to conduct an audit of funds allocated to New Jersey in Hurricane Sandy relief. The fact that some of that money was used to pay for ads featuring Christie promoting tourism to the hard-hit Jersey Shore resort towns was criticized by both Democratic and Republican rivals of the governor, but no one had paid much attention to the complaint until this week.
There is nothing new or even scandalous in the fact that Christie’s office canceled meetings between Mayor Fulop and commissioners who might have helped his city. Nor is there any merit to cries of corruption about the “Stronger than the storm” ads starring Christie. But the willingness of Christie’s political and press opponents to keep kicking him without mercy now that he is down is an indication of just how deep a hole Christie is in after Bridgegate. The governor’s political career isn’t over, but the national political capital that he had been accumulating in the last two years has vanished. If he is serious about running for president in 2016—something that we should no longer consider a certainty—he is going to have to start from scratch today.
As Cilizza rightly notes, Christie remains “the most naturally talented candidate in Republican politics.” A sympathetic pundit like David Frum is probably not entirely wrong when he scorns those who have quickly written the governor off after Bridgegate and may well be right when he refers to Christie, who is still a relatively young man who may well be in play in 2020 and beyond, as being at the beginning of a career in presidential politics rather than at its end.
But the belief that Bridgegate is but a passing phenomenon that will soon subside as do all media firestorms ignores the fact that the fiasco has robbed the governor of one of his greatest assets. Christie became famous by playing the tough-talking truth teller who spoke up for the little guy and worked across party lines. That conceit was created in no small measure by the governor’s ability to earn cheers for brashly ignoring criticism and telling off foes. Now that his office has proved that the talk of his being a bully is no figure of speech, it won’t be possible for him to play that card again without reminding people of the traffic jams on the bridge or his staff’s scheming revenge on Democrats who won’t do as they’re told.
The investigation begun by the Department of Housing and Urban Development over the use of Hurricane relief is utterly specious. Getting people to return to the shore the summer after the storm was integral to recovery efforts and Christie’s featured role was not only customary (governors of both parties and their families are routinely shown in such ads around the country without sparking investigations) but also probably smart; Christie had become the state’s most recognizable and well-liked personality in the wake of his successful storm relief efforts and his controversial (at least to conservative Republicans) embrace of President Obama. The announcement of the probe is also blatantly political since no one had paid any attention to complaints about the ads from Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone when he carried on about it last summer, though Rand Paul, another Christie foe, repeated the charge in November after he and the governor began jousting over foreign policy.
But even though nothing will come of this investigation, the decision of the Obama administration to join the attack on Christie shows how vulnerable he has become. As unfair as this aspect of the pile-on may be, it will drag on for months and, like the bridge business, will be thrown in Christie’s face every time he surfaces. It won’t drive him from office as liberals would like (unless, that is, some evidence surfaces that proves he was in on the bridge lane closings) but it will make it impossible to do the normal business of politics that is essential to preparing a presidential candidacy.
What’s more, Christie’s woes will make it easier for other contenders such as Jeb Bush, who seek the same centrist and moderate conservative backing that he seemed to have in his pocket, to emerge. The momentum Christie had after a landslide reelection has dissipated and the enthusiasm of GOP donors for a man who can no longer claim to be a rising star and media idol is also likely in question.
I’ll concede that a Christie presidential candidacy is not impossible in 2016. But if it does happen, it will have to take a completely different trajectory and be based on a recovery of public affection by the governor that seems high unlikely now. So while I’m not sure who belongs at the top of the list of Republicans kept by Cilizza and other pundits, the one thing I do know is that it shouldn’t be Christie.