Commentary Magazine


Topic: Chris Christie

Will Bridgegate Vindication Revive Christie’s 2016 Hopes?

The leak of the news that the Justice Department probe in to Bridgegate has found that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had no role in the scandal is very good news for those who want him to run for president in 2016. But even if this is truly the end of efforts to lay responsibility for that mess on the governor—and there is no guarantee that this is so given Justice’s refusal to formally announce their findings in the investigation—nothing said now can take us back to the moment at the end of 2013 when Christie seemed to have a leg up for the Republican nomination.

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The leak of the news that the Justice Department probe in to Bridgegate has found that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had no role in the scandal is very good news for those who want him to run for president in 2016. But even if this is truly the end of efforts to lay responsibility for that mess on the governor—and there is no guarantee that this is so given Justice’s refusal to formally announce their findings in the investigation—nothing said now can take us back to the moment at the end of 2013 when Christie seemed to have a leg up for the Republican nomination.

As I wrote earlier today, the fact that we had to learn about this crucial piece of information from a leak raises serious questions about whether the Justice Department is slow-walking the investigation in order to damage the GOP star or if it is seeking to gin up an indictment of someone in his administration on some wholly unrelated charge. But even if they publicly vindicate him sometime soon or had done so months ago, Bridgegate forever altered his image. That can’t be undone. And given that Christie was always going to have trouble with major elements of the GOP base, any optimism about 2016 in his camp ought to be tempered with the realization that it will be, at best, a hard slog that will have to depend on a lot of good luck for him to win.

As frustrating as this may be for Christie, that moment in history when he was the darling of the Republican establishment as well as of much of the mainstream media was over the moment the story about his staff orchestrating days of traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge broke. For a few weeks, Bridgegate became the No. 1 news story and gave the liberal media a golden opportunity to destroy the governor’s carefully crafted image of a blunt, truth-telling, can-do politician. They made the most of it with coverage that dwarfed the attention given to Obama administration scandals concerning the Veterans Administration, the IRS, Benghazi, as well as Justice Department spying on the press. As Seth wrote earlier today, it gave Republicans a clear idea of the obstacles they face going forward toward 2016 when the Democrats’ press allies can play a crucial role in undermining their candidates while essentially defending both President Obama and Hillary Clinton.

But there is more to the question of Christie’s 2016 viability than media bias or what is motivating the delay of the announcement of the federal probers’ findings. Christie’s problem is, in a way, much more serious than the one Texas Governor Rick Perry faces over his indictment on a bizarre charge involving the use of his veto power. Perry’s predicament is legal but not political because everyone, including the denizens of the far left who continue to try to justify the indictment, knows it is a phony, politically inspired charge. If it is allowed by the courts to proceed it will be a huge distraction and an obstacle to his presidential hopes. But no one thinks it says anything about his character or qualifications for the presidency.

By contrast, the really damaging aspect of Bridgegate was not the false charges laid at his feet but the distinct impression that the affair reflected something unpleasant about the character of his administration that even his defenders couldn’t credibly deny. Christie, after all, rose to national prominence with performances (captured on YouTube) where he rode roughshod over opponents and even citizens with the temerity to question his views or decisions. The attractive side of all this straight talking was that he came across as the opposite of a political phony. But when looked at another way, he could also be seen as a bully who brooked no opposition and was always focused on crushing and humiliating his opponents.

Thus while he was riding high nine months ago after a uniquely successful first term in office during which he had defied the unions and then won a landslide reelection as a moderate conservative Republican in an extremely blue state, the seeds of future problems had already been sowed. It was never clear whether his abrasive character would play as well on the national stage as it did in New Jersey. Nor was there any way of knowing whether this remarkably thin-skinned politician could hold up under the scrutiny the national press gives presidential candidates in the heat of the campaign.

But Bridgegate short-circuited that inevitable vetting process and illustrated exactly what Christie’s detractors and even some friends had always known would be his weakness. Though the governor had nothing to do with an insane and profoundly stupid plot by some on his staff to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey for not endorsing Christie, it was not a reach to claim that this sort of behavior reflected the dark side of a very hardnosed and unforgiving politician. It might have taken months on the campaign trail for some gaffe by the governor to raise these issues or it might never have happened. But now that it has, there’s no going back.

It is true that the public has the attention span of a toddler and that we have no idea what issues will be at the top of the national agenda when the nomination fight begins in earnest. The unfair treatment of Christie will also endear him to Republican primary voters who despise the media in much the same way that Perry’s troubles at the hands of his liberal tormentors have made him a hero to many on the right.

But Christie can’t wish away the damage that has already been done to him. Moreover, the problem with his candidacy is that even before Bridgegate, the notion that he had a straight path to the nomination was already a myth. Christie is, by New Jersey standards, a conservative Republican. But he forfeited the affection of many on the right when he embraced President Obama in the last days of the 2012 presidential campaign after Hurricane Sandy hit his state. Despite his pro-life views and attempt to edge further to the right, such as his refusal to involve New Jersey in a regional cap-and-trade emissions program, he was never going to be able to compete for the votes of evangelicals or Tea Partiers in the primaries. His hopes for the nomination rested on a plan that would repeat Mitt Romney’s trick in hanging around and letting all his more conservative opponents knock each other off. It might have worked, but Christie will be facing a much stronger field than Romney. And now that the glow is off his image after Bridgegate that scenario, while not impossible, is more unlikely than could have been imagined a year ago.

The end of Bridgegate, if that is what has happened, will help Christie, whose interest in the presidency never flagged even at the height of the scandal. But if he was a frontrunner nine months ago, today he must considered as, at best, a very long shot to win the nomination.

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Why Did We Learn About Christie’s Innocence From a Leak?

The news that the federal investigation of Bridgegate will absolve New Jersey Governor Chris Christie of any involvement in the bizarre scandal is the most important development in a story that has lingered since the beginning of 2014. But the fact that we learned about it from a leak, rather than a formal announcement of some sort, should raise some eyebrows and raises as many questions as it provides answers to those interested in the story.

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The news that the federal investigation of Bridgegate will absolve New Jersey Governor Chris Christie of any involvement in the bizarre scandal is the most important development in a story that has lingered since the beginning of 2014. But the fact that we learned about it from a leak, rather than a formal announcement of some sort, should raise some eyebrows and raises as many questions as it provides answers to those interested in the story.

If, after nine months of digging into a scandal that, as far as we know, involves no dead bodies, stolen money, or bribery, the Justice Department is still puttering around the affairs of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, it’s worth asking what’s taking so long and what are the motives of those sitting on the findings that are apparently conclusive.

But it should also be remembered that what is being investigated here isn’t all that mysterious. With the vast resources of the government at their disposal, it’s hard to imagine exactly what it is about the traffic jam that is taking so long to figure out.

Even WNBC’s sources, which are, we are assured, government officials and not connected to the Christie camp in any way, say the federal probe of Bridgegate is not concluded. This is an interesting fact in and of itself since it shows that, as is their practice in all too many of their cases, having found that the intended object of their investigation is innocent, the Justice Department investigators are desperately searching for a way to indict someone for something, even if it has nothing to do with the bridge.

In other words, the effort to find out who it was that decided to close lanes on the bridge and set off days of traffic jams that inconvenienced many thousands of citizens has probably turned into a fishing expedition in which the FBI may be looking for something that can be called a crime even if the original scandal is not one.

That prospect is bad enough because it demonstrates again the power of the feds to nail anyone who gets in their cross hairs, even if they have to invent a new crime to justify their waste of time and money on an investigation that had run into a dead-end. But the length of the investigation and the refusal of the Justice Department to wind up a matter that is not, as far as anyone knows, actually about anything more serious than a wacky revenge plot involving a local New Jersey political feud between the governor’s office in Trenton and the mayor of Fort Lee is curious.

Yet the decision of some on the inside of the probe to leak the principal findings of their work is even more curious. Why did they do it?

The first reason that comes to mind is the possibility that higher-ups in the Justice Department are deliberately slow-walking the investigation or stalling the release of its findings. The most likely motive for such shenanigans is obvious. The longer the investigation continues, the more damage is done to Christie, a Republican that many in the administration rightly fear as a dangerous opponent for the Democrats in 2016.

Is that an unreasonable suspicion? No doubt Attorney General Eric Holder’s defenders will insist that it is outrageous to even suspect him of doing anything like that. But the highly political way Holder has conducted the affairs of the Justice Department, including its involvement in voter ID cases in which it has taken up the partisan talking points of the Democratic Party, makes it clear that politics is always at the top of the agenda at Justice these days. A slow-walking of the probe also allows Democrats in the New Jersey State Legislature to continue their own lengthy and predictably pointless and inconclusive dive into the Bridgegate mess whose only purpose is to embarrass and/or damage the governor.

That may not be true. But there is also no reason for the Department to be sitting on the main results of any Bridgegate investigation. If the leaks are correct and Christie has been found to be innocent in the scandal then that needs to be formally announced and not kept under wraps for a moment longer. If investigators are now trying to lay some other crime, real or imagined, at the feet of someone else in his administration, that needs to be put on the table immediately as well.

The unnecessary traffic jams caused by some political mischief makers was an outrageous abuse of power but no matter who did it, it has never been exactly clear that it was a crime as opposed to something that is merely outrageous rather than illegal. It shouldn’t take this long to answer that question or the one about the authors of the bridge decision. The longer the Justice Department continues their part in this farce, the more it is becoming clear that in this affair, it may be that the investigation is a bigger scandal than the traffic jams.

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Bridgegate, the Media, and Lessons for 2016

The apparent exoneration by federal investigators of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the scandal over the lane closures on a bridge last year may be good news for Christie, but other prospective 2016 GOP candidates should take notice. The media’s unhinged obsession with hyping and trumping up the story in an effort to take down a presidential candidate was just a warm-up act. Far from chastened, the media is almost certainly just getting started.

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The apparent exoneration by federal investigators of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the scandal over the lane closures on a bridge last year may be good news for Christie, but other prospective 2016 GOP candidates should take notice. The media’s unhinged obsession with hyping and trumping up the story in an effort to take down a presidential candidate was just a warm-up act. Far from chastened, the media is almost certainly just getting started.

That means that if Christie really is exonerated–which he has been insisting he would be for months–conservatives should expect the leftist press to choose a new target. Although the coverage of this scandal leaves the mainstream press looking utterly humiliated, they won’t be humbled. A good precedent is when the New York Times concocted false accusations against John McCain in 2008 intended to destroy not just his campaign but his family; after the story was called out for the unethical hit job it was, especially on the right, then-Times editor Bill Keller responded: “My first tendency when they do that is to find the toughest McCain story we’ve got and put it on the front page.”

Getting called out for bias only makes the media more likely to give in to its vindictive instincts. This is the press version of an in-kind contribution, and those contributions don’t go to Republican campaigns.

In January conservative media watchers were passing around the statistics that showed the lopsided coverage the media was giving “Bridgegate” vs. the IRS scandal. One of the charts, which showed dedicated coverage over a fixed period of time, bothered reporters. In one of the unconvincing “defenses” of his fellow journalists, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza objected:

The comparison made in this chart in terms of coverage is not an apples to apples one.  The IRS story broke on May 10. That’s a full 52 days before the Media Research Center began counting the minutes of news coverage devoted to it. The Christie story, on the other hand, broke in the Bergen Record on Jan. 8, the same day that MRC began tracking its mentions in the media.

What Cillizza actually demonstrated, unintentionally, was a far worse aspect of the coverage that was tougher to quantify but jumps off the screen from Cillizza’s post. And that is the general lack of interest on the part of reporters in digging into the government’s shocking misconduct–you know, practicing journalism. The lack of curiosity has been astounding.

As our Pete Wehner wrote the other day, forget basic reporting: the press ignored a genuine piece of Benghazi-related news when it fell in their laps. That’s how the IRS developments happened too. The initial story was announced in the IRS’s attempt to get out in front of a report that had discovered the abuse of power and was going to detail its findings. The IRS decided to try to spin the news in advance to take control of the story.

And the recent revelations of the IRS’s ongoing strategy of destroying evidence during the investigation were brought to the public’s attention by the group Judicial Watch, which has been filing Freedom of Information Act requests for documents. The latest piece of news, that Attorney General Eric Holder’s office tried to coordinate a strategy with House Democrats to blunt the impact of future revelations about the IRS’s illegal targeting scheme, came to light because Holder’s office accidentally called Darrell Issa’s office instead of Democrat Elijah Cummings.

The difference in media coverage was only part of the story, then. The more serious part was that the media is just not doing their jobs when the target of the investigation is the Obama administration. That doesn’t mean all reporters, of course, or that they’re ignoring all stories. But the pattern is pretty clear: when we learn something about Obama administration misbehavior, it’s generally not from reporters, many of whom eventually get hired by the Obama administration.

The other aspect of the coverage gap is the type of story. Surely Cillizza thinks a staffer closing lanes on a bridge, however indefensible, is a different caliber of story than the IRS, at the encouragement of high-ranking Democrats, undertaking a targeting scheme to silence Obama’s critics in the lead-up to his reelection. Cillizza was right, in other words: conservatives weren’t comparing apples to apples. But he was wrong in thinking that stacked the deck in favor of conservatives’ conclusion; the opposite was the case.

We’ve already seen this with other prospective GOP 2016 candidates. When Wisconsin prosecutors initiated a wide-ranging “John Doe” investigation intended to silence conservative groups and voters in Wisconsin and level false allegations against Scott Walker, the media ran with the story. It turned out that the investigation was so unethical that those prosecutors now stand accused broad civil-rights violations. But the point of the coverage is to echo the false allegations against Walker, not to get the story right. So the media moved on.

And they moved on to Rick Perry, who was the target of an indictment so demented that only the most extreme liberals defended it. The point of the case, though, was to get headlines announcing Perry’s indictment. This one may have backfired because it was so insane that, aside from former Obama advisor Jim Messina, Rachel Maddow, and a couple writers for liberal magazines, the left tried to distance themselves from it. But the fact remains: Rick Perry is under indictment.

The criminalization of politics is part of the left’s broader lawfare strategy. This is the sort of thing repellent to democratic values and certainly should draw critical attention from the press. Instead, they’ve chosen to enable it.

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The Ever-Expanding 2016 GOP Field

The nature of the GOP’s nominating race for 2016 is such that good polls for some potential candidates are also tempting for others not yet included in the polls. For example, the most recent polling on Iowa, which Jonathan wrote about last week, showed Mike Huckabee with a healthy lead. Early polls are about name recognition, so they can only be taken so far. Nonetheless, candidates who have already built name recognition by running in the past can’t help but notice the value of such recognition when some of their strongest competitors are, theoretically, relative unknowns nationwide.

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The nature of the GOP’s nominating race for 2016 is such that good polls for some potential candidates are also tempting for others not yet included in the polls. For example, the most recent polling on Iowa, which Jonathan wrote about last week, showed Mike Huckabee with a healthy lead. Early polls are about name recognition, so they can only be taken so far. Nonetheless, candidates who have already built name recognition by running in the past can’t help but notice the value of such recognition when some of their strongest competitors are, theoretically, relative unknowns nationwide.

Take this summer poll from Gallup on the public’s familiarity with 2016 candidates. The only two Republicans to crack 60 percent were Chris Christie and Jeb Bush. Other than those two, the potential candidates who had run presidential campaigns in the past tended to score higher than those who haven’t yet run–a quite logical finding. If he wins reelection in Wisconsin, Scott Walker would be considered among the GOP’s strongest candidates (on paper at least, which is all we have so far for the newbies). Walker was involved in a high-stakes national issue: the fight over public unions. And thanks to that, he was subject to a recall election that saw national press and mobilized national liberal groups. Yet Gallup found Walker with the lowest familiarity of any of the GOP candidates, at just 34 percent.

Similarly, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal–the human résumé–was at just 38 percent. Huckabee was at 54 percent, higher than previous candidate Rick Santorum (but lower than Rick Perry) as well as all the non-previous candidates except Christie, Jeb Bush, and Rand Paul, who was at 55 percent. Huckabee also tied Christie for the highest favorability rating in that poll.

And that poll didn’t even include Mitt Romney, who shows up leading New Hampshire polls for the same reason Huckabee polls well in Iowa. And while a Romney candidacy would certainly have its cheerleaders, Huckabee is talking openly about testing those polls:

The Republican told a group of reporters on Monday over coffee at a restaurant just outside of D.C. that he learned from his failed 2008 bid that he can’t take money and fundraising for granted, even though he is leading in GOP early primary state polls.

Huckabee says he will make a decision early next year about another presidential run but noted he’s in a “different place than I was eight years ago,” due to a lucrative career as a Fox News and radio show host.

That career has also opened the door to meetings with donors he said he wouldn’t have gotten in 2008. Then, they’d say, “Who are you? How do you spell your name?”

In fact, Huckabee said he’s in talks with donors, and, “with a lot of people, it’s [going] pretty good.” He pointed to the nonprofit, America Takes Action, which he recently set up that, he says, has already raised seven figures.

“Not a single person I’ve asked [to contribute to the group] has said no,” he told reporters.

Huckabee had a decent run for an underdog in 2008 and he has a natural constituency, as well as an amiability that translates into votes. The same cannot be said for another retread who is the subject of speculation: former Utah governor Jon Huntsman.

Huntsman has a few things going for him: he’s got gubernatorial experience as well as foreign-policy chops from his time as ambassador to China, and he has considerable financial resources at his disposal. But unlike Huckabee, outside of the media Huntsman has no natural base (and the reporters who love him will vote for Hillary anyway in the general). And also unlike Huckabee, Huntsman is almost shockingly unlikeable for a politician.

Huntsman has a general disposition that is about as pleasant as nails on a chalkboard. He does not like Republican voters, and he does not want them to think otherwise. The feeling is mutual: Huntsman’s numbers from 2012 suggest the pool of Huntsman voters is made up entirely of people who are either named Huntsman or owe him money.

And then there is Jindal, a smart, wonky conservative with executive experience and a strong command of the issues. Jindal’s name recognition is so low that he’s forced to be less coy than others about his possible presidential ambitions:

“There’s no reason to be coy,” Jindal said at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “I am thinking, I am praying about whether I’ll run in 2016. I said I won’t make that decision until after November.”

Jindal has certain strengths: he’s as smart as Huntsman pretends he is, for starters. And he’s far from insufferable about it: he doesn’t project arrogance, just competence. He’s been twice elected governor of Louisiana, so he has experience on the campaign trail. He’s proved himself in a crisis. And he seems to genuinely like interacting with voters.

But his competition would include another impressive, reformist conservative governor in Scott Walker; other young conservatives with poise and presence, like Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and possibly Ted Cruz; and more experienced social conservatives such as, potentially, Huckabee, Rick Perry, and perhaps Mike Pence. The question, then, is whether Jindal could find some way to stand out from the pack. And with polls like those we’ve seen so far, that roster of rivals is likely to keep expanding.

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Deep Bench? None in GOP Stand Out for ’16

Paying attention to presidential polls two years in advance can be something of a sucker’s game. We are a long way from intense campaigning, let alone voting, which means such polls tend to be more about name recognition than anything else. Yet the latest poll of Iowa Republicans about 2016 makes it hard to avoid some hard conclusions about the nature of the race and the roster of possible candidates. While Democrats still appear to be ready to coronate Hillary Clinton as their nominee, the Republican race really is wide open. For the first time in recent memory, there really will be no one who can be considered a frontrunner.

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Paying attention to presidential polls two years in advance can be something of a sucker’s game. We are a long way from intense campaigning, let alone voting, which means such polls tend to be more about name recognition than anything else. Yet the latest poll of Iowa Republicans about 2016 makes it hard to avoid some hard conclusions about the nature of the race and the roster of possible candidates. While Democrats still appear to be ready to coronate Hillary Clinton as their nominee, the Republican race really is wide open. For the first time in recent memory, there really will be no one who can be considered a frontrunner.

The Iowa poll confirms the cliché about name recognition since the runaway leader in the survey of possible GOP presidential candidates is Mike Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor has been a favorite in the Hawkeye State since winning the caucus there in 2008. But it’s been several years since the talk show was active politically and there is no indication that he will run. If we eliminate him we see that the leader is Rep. Paul Ryan with only 12 percent supporting him. The rest of the field is in single digits with none of the big names, such as Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, or Rick Perry making much of an impact. Nor has Rick Santorum, who won Iowa in 2012 in a huge upset after months of beating the bushes in rural counties, retained much support as he comes in as the preference of only three percent.

There’s good news and bad news for Republicans in these poll figures.

The good news is that 2016 shapes up to be a competitive and interesting race. No imposing frontrunner with deep pockets will be there to scare off talented candidates who want to test the waters. The GOP has to hope that in contrast to the chaos of 2012, with a more rational debate and primary schedule this time, the party will be able to run a competitive race that will produce a presidential candidate with the political moxie to effectively challenge Hillary Clinton.

The bad news is that although Republicans have spent much of the last two years bragging about their deep political bench, the roster of GOP presidential wannabes may not be as bright as they thought. By this time, somebody in the field should have been capable of impressing early state voters and caucus-goers as a potential keeper. But so far, none seems to stand out in contrast to the others.

Each would-be candidate has had his ups and downs. Christie might have been in a very strong position by now but Bridgegate derailed his potential juggernaut. Paul remains a strong candidate but ISIS and various other global crises have made his neo-isolationism a lot less attractive to the GOP mainstream. Rubio had a bad 2013 and the conservative base may never forgive him for backing an immigration reform bill. The others haven’t broken through yet and even old familiar names like Jeb Bush don’t seem to be attracting more than token support.

While this is good news for journalists who love a close horse race, it needs to be emphasized that this is really unexplored territory for Republicans who have a historical tradition of liking front-runners, especially those who have run and lost before. You have to go back to 1940 when dark horse Wendell Wilkie edged New York District Attorney Thomas Dewey to get the right to oppose Franklin D. Roosevelt’s bid for a third term to find a GOP presidential race that was as wide open as the one we will witness in 2016. In every presidential contest since then, there has been at least one or two genuine frontrunner types or former candidates who dominate the race. That means that whoever does emerge from this battle will almost certainly at least start the 2016 general-election campaign as a heavy underdog to Clinton.

It is possible that one or two of the current bunch scrambling for attention will break through in 2015 and enter the primary season as something resembling a frontrunner. But for now, it appears to be a struggle in which none have anything that looks like a clear advantage. Since even the best of them have little experience on the national stage, questions about whether this deep bench is equal to the task of running for president are entirely legitimate.

That’s why the buzz about Mitt Romney returning to the fray seems to be about more than buyer’s remorse about President Obama’s dismal second term or guilt on the part of conservatives that trashed their 2012 nominee but now realize the former Massachusetts governor wasn’t so bad after all. In a race where none of the contenders have a real political or financial advantage, a candidate with the name recognition and the fundraising prowess of Romney might sweep the field again as he did last time.

This isn’t an argument for Romney running again. A third trip to the well might not yield any better results for him than the previous one. He’s right to say, as he continues to insist, that it’s time for some one else to step up and take their turn. But it must be conceded that in a race this open, anything can happen. Instead of celebrating the diversity of riches in their candidate roster, Republicans need to be wondering which, if any of them, can step up and show they’re ready to tangle with Clinton. Right now, the sports cliché about all prospects being suspects seems to apply to the GOP field.

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Christie’s Gambling Double-Down and 2016

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was in Mexico last week on a trip that was aimed at improving his foreign-policy credentials but undermined his reputation for frankness by refusing to talk about immigration while south of the border. But upon his return he did even more damage to his prospects for 2016 by announcing a decision to allow Atlantic City casinos and New Jersey racetracks to allow betting on sports. In doing so, the governor not only doubled down on a failed bet that gambling revenue will save the state but also gave more ammunition to opponents who are already convinced that he is not a conservative.

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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was in Mexico last week on a trip that was aimed at improving his foreign-policy credentials but undermined his reputation for frankness by refusing to talk about immigration while south of the border. But upon his return he did even more damage to his prospects for 2016 by announcing a decision to allow Atlantic City casinos and New Jersey racetracks to allow betting on sports. In doing so, the governor not only doubled down on a failed bet that gambling revenue will save the state but also gave more ammunition to opponents who are already convinced that he is not a conservative.

Christie earned his reputation as a straight talker largely because he was willing to confront municipal unions and refused to continue to fund a Hudson River tunnel project that the state couldn’t afford. But his strong support for an increased reliance on gambling to revive a faltering Atlantic City economy did not get the same national attention. But instead of helping bring the resort back, the massive investment on the part of the state in gambling did nothing to save businesses that were already doomed. The closing of two large casinos in the resort at the end of the summer season was a severe blow to Christie’s policy. The collapse of the new Revel casino was a particular embarrassment since, as Breibart.com noted when its demise was announced, Christie had put $260 million in state tax rebates in the scheme to build it.

The collapse of the $2 billion project on Christie’s watch cannot be entirely blamed on the governor but he does bear responsibility for the state’s role in the mess. Nor was that the only government connection. The New Jersey state pension board invested another $300 million in a hedge fund with a stake in the casino.

But the problem here isn’t just the gloomy business environment in the shore resort. It’s that rather than honestly facing the city’s problems and seeking a diversification of investment that might give the place a chance, Christie insisted on pouring more money into gambling at a time when there was already ample reason to believe Atlantic City’s time as a gambling boom town was over. With neighboring states like Pennsylvania building their own resorts as well as competition from Indian reservations, Christie’s foolish investment in even more gambling was never going to work. But, as savvy state political observers noted, it was popular with unions that stood to gain jobs in the short term from the investments.

Yet even if we are prepared to give Christie a pass for his mistake in betting on gambling in the past, his latest gambit—legal sports betting—shows him and New Jersey to be hopelessly addicted to gambling revenue.

Christie, who is joined in support for sports gambling by some state Democrats, thinks allowing betting on major sports is the ticket to save an industry that is over-saturated in the region. Given the massive amounts of illegal betting on sports, especially football, the notion of allowing the state to get a share of that bonanza makes some sense. But, as was already amply proven over the last 30 years, Atlantic City is not Las Vegas. What works in the latter may not prove profitable in the former. Moreover, the major sports leagues have already tied up the state’s efforts to get in on the action in court. That’s why Christie’s announcement that the state would not prosecute casinos and racetracks that allowed sports betting caught these operations by surprise since they know any money spent on this may be a sunk cost if the courts rule against them.

Just as important for Christie, if he persists in this policy it will mean that his battles with some of the most popular sports businesses in the nation will be going on when he is presumably planning to run for president. The idea of campaigning in states where he needs the support of evangelicals and conservatives while putting the weight of his state behind efforts to expand gambling will make it even harder for him to pretend that he is someone who shares the values or the interests of core Republican voters. The leagues will argue, with some justice, that what Christie is doing would put the integrity of America’s most beloved pastimes in jeopardy. That he will be pursuing that crusade merely in order to pay for New Jersey’s government rather than seeking to trim it will also not play well in GOP primaries.

Christie may believe that Bridgegate won’t hurt him and that he can fake his way through foreign-policy questions that betray his lack of experience as well as his paucity of knowledge about such questions. But his gambling dependence problem is not something that can be wished away in a conservative primary. In a field where he may face candidates who have better conservative credentials, a betting habit won’t help Christie close the sale with Republicans.

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Cuomo and the Bridgegate Precedent

Today, the investigation of questionable conduct in undermining the work of a New York state ethics commission stopped being a tiff between Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York Times. When the office of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York issues a letter saying that it believes commissioners are being influenced to give false statements, Cuomo’s problem has become a matter of legal peril rather than bad public relations. But don’t expect this story to dominate the news cycle the way New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s Bridgegate problems did a few months ago.

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Today, the investigation of questionable conduct in undermining the work of a New York state ethics commission stopped being a tiff between Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York Times. When the office of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York issues a letter saying that it believes commissioners are being influenced to give false statements, Cuomo’s problem has become a matter of legal peril rather than bad public relations. But don’t expect this story to dominate the news cycle the way New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s Bridgegate problems did a few months ago.

Ironically, the blowup in the Cuomo investigation comes just a day after Politico ran a feature asking whether Christie had recovered sufficiently from the Bridgegate mess to return to his former status as a formidable Republican presidential contender. The jury is out on that question but Cuomo’s legal problems and the relative lack of interest in the story by the cable news channels that were all-Bridgegate all-the-time at the start of 2014 raises some interesting questions about media bias.

The first point to be made about federal investigation of the way Cuomo’s office sabotaged the Moreland Commission before the governor disbanded it is that it is a lot more serious than the batty decision to create traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge last fall.

As I wrote on Monday, Cuomo empowered the commission to investigate the endemic practice of pay-to-play in state government that has made Albany an ethics cesspool for decades. But, as the New York Times reported last week, as soon as it started poking around into businesses that were linked to the governor, the word went out from the governor’s office to cease and desist. Cuomo’s appointees followed orders, though apparently some members of the commission protested since they had foolishly thought the governor was serious when he told them to ferret out corruption. Seeing that the commission was going to be a problem and not the sort of harmless stunt that would make a show of his concern for probity, he quickly disbanded it.

Not unreasonably, this has prompted the Justice Department to look into the matter. At the very least, some people on Cuomo’s staff may be in peril of obstruction of justice charges that will taint the governor’s office. But given his own reputation as a political bully with a predilection for issuing threats to political opponents and allies alike, it is not unreasonable to suspect the chief executive may also be involved in efforts to quiet witnesses or perhaps even involvement in the original effort to stop the investigation of a firm that had helped him get elected. That all has yet to be determined, but the willingness of the Times to buy into this scandal with the sort of space and prominent placement and the decision of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District—who is, by the way, a Democrat and an Obama appointee—to double down in the charges with the latest letter illustrates the seriousness of this problem.

In other words, Cuomo is in big trouble and not just media-firestorm trouble but in the kind of legal problem that ends political careers in disgrace.

But, as consumers of our 24/7 news cycle may have noticed, despite the involvement of the country’s liberal flagship newspaper, this Ethics Comissiongate (suggestions for a better scandal “gate” moniker will be welcomed) is still flying below the radar on the same stations that obsessed over Bridgegate.

To state this fact is not to assume Cuomo’s guilt or to deny the seriousness of Bridgegate. The bridge scandal was an example of what happens when small-minded officials and staffers use the great power that has been put in their hands to maliciously inconvenience ordinary citizens in order to pursue petty feuds against other political figures. Anyone involved in plotting this piece of lunacy deserves all the opprobrium that can be rained down on his or her worthless heads.

It is also true that Bridgegate resonated with the public because it illustrated another side of Christie’s well-known public behavior. His penchant for bluntly scourging his critics and punishing his foes was seen as amusing and made him a YouTube star when it was limited to foils like union officials and obnoxious liberals. But even if the genesis of the traffic jam cannot be directly linked to Christie, it is fair to note that those staffers who were involved seemed to be acting in a manner that was consistent with the governor’s instincts. That is something that is always going to be held against Christie and, as Politico noted, his ongoing arrogant behavior toward friends and foes alike merely adds fuel to the fire. This far out from the 2016 contest, it is impossible to know whether Christie still has a chance. But Bridgegate will remain a problem for him if only because it is the sort of scandal that is easily understood (everybody hates traffic jams and has cursed those who create them) and is prime fodder for TV comics.

Cuomo’s legal peril is not quite as comedic or visceral in nature. But it is far more serious. The willingness of the governor to allegedly quash a subpoena on a firm that was a campaign vendor is a classic example of corruption. The governor’s effort to spin this, perhaps aided by an effort to coach witnesses to echo his denials, is, at best, suspicious, and very likely criminal in nature. That means Cuomo can forget about running for president someday and should instead concentrate on staying out of federal prison.

But instead of panels endlessly examining the evidence and pondering the political implications, most of the media yawns. At its peak, Bridgegate got more coverage than other more serious scandals such as the IRS’s discriminatory treatment of conservative groups, government spying, Benghazi, or even wrongdoing at the VA. So it is hardly surprising that Cuomo’s woes aren’t generating the same wall-to-wall attention. Could the reason for that be that Christie was a Republican and these other scandals involve Democrats and the Obama administration? Anyone who can’t connect those dots hasn’t been paying attention to the way the media works.

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Should Rand Paul Embrace or Downplay the Libertarian Label?

About a year ago, Rand Paul made what may qualify as the prospective presidential candidate’s most defensive comment on his political ideology. “I’m not advocating everyone go out and run around with no clothes on and smoke pot,” Paul said according the Washington Post. “I’m not a libertarian. I’m a libertarian Republican. I’m a constitutional conservative.”

The comment was made in the context of Paul’s efforts to court evangelicals, but revealed a challenge posed by the “libertarian” label. Much of what is said about libertarians in the media is absurdly unfair. Like any political movement, there is a diverse range of opinion about what constitutes libertarianism and how libertarians might approach policy. (I don’t remember recently reading an editorial in Reason magazine, for example, advocating everyone “run around with no clothes on and smoke pot.”)

There is a fascinating debate among libertarians, for example, about abortion and whether the government should enforce the granting of individual rights to a person from the beginning of his life, or whether a person is granted those rights sometime after life begins. Instead of being asked about that, Paul gets told (according to the Post account) by voters that they like much of what he has to say but they hesitate to vote for him because they “don’t like legalizing heroin.”

But he consciously avoids ditching the label altogether. Just a few weeks ago, he offered a slightly different formulation: he’s “libertarian-ish.” His libertarian leanings, if that’s the right word, are not only genuine but also have their own political advantages. The same day CNN ran Paul’s “libertarian-ish” comment, the New York Times ran a prominent story headlined “Rand Paul and Wealthy Libertarians Connect as He Weighs Running.” It opened with a well-chosen anecdote:

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About a year ago, Rand Paul made what may qualify as the prospective presidential candidate’s most defensive comment on his political ideology. “I’m not advocating everyone go out and run around with no clothes on and smoke pot,” Paul said according the Washington Post. “I’m not a libertarian. I’m a libertarian Republican. I’m a constitutional conservative.”

The comment was made in the context of Paul’s efforts to court evangelicals, but revealed a challenge posed by the “libertarian” label. Much of what is said about libertarians in the media is absurdly unfair. Like any political movement, there is a diverse range of opinion about what constitutes libertarianism and how libertarians might approach policy. (I don’t remember recently reading an editorial in Reason magazine, for example, advocating everyone “run around with no clothes on and smoke pot.”)

There is a fascinating debate among libertarians, for example, about abortion and whether the government should enforce the granting of individual rights to a person from the beginning of his life, or whether a person is granted those rights sometime after life begins. Instead of being asked about that, Paul gets told (according to the Post account) by voters that they like much of what he has to say but they hesitate to vote for him because they “don’t like legalizing heroin.”

But he consciously avoids ditching the label altogether. Just a few weeks ago, he offered a slightly different formulation: he’s “libertarian-ish.” His libertarian leanings, if that’s the right word, are not only genuine but also have their own political advantages. The same day CNN ran Paul’s “libertarian-ish” comment, the New York Times ran a prominent story headlined “Rand Paul and Wealthy Libertarians Connect as He Weighs Running.” It opened with a well-chosen anecdote:

Frayda Levin, a New Jersey libertarian activist and former small-business owner, is a woman of many passions: promoting liberty, ending marijuana prohibition and opposing her state’s recent minimum-wage increase. But Ms. Levin has added another cause as well. At gala benefits for free-market research institutes and at fund-raisers for antitax groups, she has urged like-minded donors to help send Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, to the White House.

“I consider that one of my main goals,” said Ms. Levin, who has met with Mr. Paul several times and in February introduced him at a private conference in Florida hosted by the Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group. “I tell people he’s the Republican of the future. He’s got both the intellectual heft and the emotional understanding.”

A libertarian’s declaration that Paul is the “Republican of the future” is not just good for Paul, but arguably has benefits for the GOP as well. After all, popular libertarian candidates who want to run for president tend to leave the GOP and run on their own ticket. This is, electorally speaking, frustrating for Republicans and counterproductive for libertarians. As staunch libertarian Randy Barnett wrote in 2012, “The Libertarian Party’s effort will, if effective, attract more libertarian voters away from the candidate who is marginally less hostile to liberty, and help hand the election to the candidate who is more hostile to liberty.”

But a libertarian(ish) Republican, if effective, does the opposite: he can galvanize support for libertarian policy objectives without splintering the conservative coalition that remains the only hope of standing athwart the statist project yelling stop. But there’s a catch, and here’s where libertarians get justifiably put off by the right: the Republican Party wants someone like Paul to be just popular enough. It’s up to libertarians to convince the party that he should be the GOP’s standard bearer, and it’s not an easy sell.

Which raises the question: is it easier to make that sell if Paul embraces his libertarianism or downplays it? That will be one question the 2016 nomination race seeks to answer. It’s easy to see both sides of it. It’s possible that the GOP just isn’t ready to go full libertarian at the presidential level, and therefore downplaying his libertarian label in favor of a more conservative-Republican tag might settle some nerves. Yet it’s also possible that by avoiding the term “libertarian” Paul is implicitly reinforcing the idea that libertarianism is an idea whose time has yet to arrive, thus justifying the suspicions of the establishment.

But it’s also important to note that whatever Paul chooses to call himself, he has been branded a libertarian and that is how he will be viewed relative to the other candidates. That is, Paul has essentially emerged as the candidate for libertarians, whether or not he calls himself the libertarian candidate.

It is for that reason that the much-feared “establishment” is only a real threat to Paul in the primary if there is no consensus establishment candidate. The conservative grassroots will not, at least in significant numbers, choose Jeb Bush or Chris Christie over Rand Paul. Many non-libertarian conservatives would prefer Paul over a genuinely moderate candidate. So rather than an anyone-but-Paul movement coalescing against him, he would probably benefit from the reverse.

But what if Bush doesn’t run? Well then Paul has a problem, because the “establishment” will support someone, and there are many palatable candidates on offer. The governors, especially Scott Walker and Mike Pence, would probably easily compete with Paul for non-libertarian voters and get establishment backing. Marco Rubio is another candidate who would appeal to establishment figures but also many conservatives–though his support for comprehensive immigration reform presumably makes him less of a threat to Paul’s base of support.

In such a case, Paul’s best hope is to compete for the “constitutional conservative” label, not differentiate himself from it. He has less to lose if he’s up against a 2016 version of Mitt Romney. So is Paul a libertarian? The best guess right now is: It depends.

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Union Leader’s About-Face on School Choice

Despite the Obama administration’s best efforts, union membership remains at all-time lows. Meanwhile, public disapproval of labor unions is near all-time highs. Teachers’ unions have been a main catalyst of public antipathy. During the last presidential election campaign, Gov. Mitt Romney tried to make teachers’ unions a lightning rod to rally support. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has likewise used antipathy toward teachers’ unions as a populist tool.

One of the reasons why teachers’ unions have become such a lightning rod is the belief, even among many who would normally be pro-labor, is the sense that teachers’ unions pit membership interest above that of children. Nowhere has this become more apparent than with the case of school vouchers which allow otherwise underprivileged youth or those stuck in poorly performing districts a chance at a better education. While many underprivileged students have sought to take advantage of these vouchers, teachers’ unions have uniformly opposed them. Here, for example, is the National Education Association position on vouchers and here is the American Federation of Teachers’ position.

How refreshing it is to see a union leader, even if retired, rethink his position and put kids first. George Parker used to be president of the Washington Teachers Union, and is a 30-year veteran teacher of the Washington D.C. school system. Writing last month in the Tennessean, here is what he had to say:

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Despite the Obama administration’s best efforts, union membership remains at all-time lows. Meanwhile, public disapproval of labor unions is near all-time highs. Teachers’ unions have been a main catalyst of public antipathy. During the last presidential election campaign, Gov. Mitt Romney tried to make teachers’ unions a lightning rod to rally support. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has likewise used antipathy toward teachers’ unions as a populist tool.

One of the reasons why teachers’ unions have become such a lightning rod is the belief, even among many who would normally be pro-labor, is the sense that teachers’ unions pit membership interest above that of children. Nowhere has this become more apparent than with the case of school vouchers which allow otherwise underprivileged youth or those stuck in poorly performing districts a chance at a better education. While many underprivileged students have sought to take advantage of these vouchers, teachers’ unions have uniformly opposed them. Here, for example, is the National Education Association position on vouchers and here is the American Federation of Teachers’ position.

How refreshing it is to see a union leader, even if retired, rethink his position and put kids first. George Parker used to be president of the Washington Teachers Union, and is a 30-year veteran teacher of the Washington D.C. school system. Writing last month in the Tennessean, here is what he had to say:

My change of heart boiled down to this: I realized my opposition to opportunity scholarships was based on prioritizing adult interests above those of kids. As a former union leader, I made maintaining union influence and power a greater priority than meeting the educational needs of parents and students. But seeing firsthand the positive impact that D.C.’s federally funded voucher program had on many families — especially those of color and limited means — compelled me to rethink my position.

He then gives three reasons why school vouchers work:

First, it puts more power back in the hands of parents, where it belongs. I think we can all agree that parents should have the biggest voice in deciding what type of school is best for their child. Second, expanding school choice helps level the playing field by giving low-income families the same options as high-income ones. Opportunity scholarships will be a godsend for disadvantaged families who cannot afford private school, or to move to a community with better public options. Third, and most importantly, opportunity scholarships work. Similar programs in other states report greater levels of student achievement and parental satisfaction.

Let us hope that his former colleagues will have a similar change of heart. At the very least, his litmus test of what benefits students should become the key litmus test for anyone concerned about the state of public education in the United States, whether they are parents, community leaders, non-unionized teachers, or, indeed, teachers’ unions as well.

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Jeb Bush and the 2016 GOP Field

George Will wrote a column in which he said of Jeb Bush, “A candidacy by Florida’s former governor would be desirable” and “[he] does … deserve a respectful hearing from the Republican nominating electorate.”


I agree, partly because I admire Bush, who was a highly successful, reform-minded conservative governor. His record as governor of Florida was, in fact, more conservative in key respects than Ronald Reagan’s record when he was governor of California. (Mr. Reagan signed into law what at the time was the largest tax hike ever proposed by any governor, whereas Bush cut taxes every year he was governor, covering eight years and totaling $20 billion.) Governor Bush also has the ability to appeal to non-traditional GOP voters. For example, he won 61 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1998 and 56 percent of their vote in 2002. (Hispanics are one of the fastest-rising demographic groups in America; in 2012, Mitt Romney won only 27 percent of their vote.)

There are people who have doubts Bush will run and who say that even if he did, he wouldn’t win. Perhaps. For my part, I hope he does run, assuming he can do so with, in his words, “joy in my heart.”

But I also hope many others run in 2016, not only those I’m favorably disposed toward (like Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, and Scott Walker) but also those I’ve been more critical of (including Ted Cruz and Rick Perry). Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee would be formidable figures in a contest; I hope they, too, enter the contest. The same goes for Rand Paul, with whom I have substantial disagreements (he is far more libertarian than I am).

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George Will wrote a column in which he said of Jeb Bush, “A candidacy by Florida’s former governor would be desirable” and “[he] does … deserve a respectful hearing from the Republican nominating electorate.”


I agree, partly because I admire Bush, who was a highly successful, reform-minded conservative governor. His record as governor of Florida was, in fact, more conservative in key respects than Ronald Reagan’s record when he was governor of California. (Mr. Reagan signed into law what at the time was the largest tax hike ever proposed by any governor, whereas Bush cut taxes every year he was governor, covering eight years and totaling $20 billion.) Governor Bush also has the ability to appeal to non-traditional GOP voters. For example, he won 61 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1998 and 56 percent of their vote in 2002. (Hispanics are one of the fastest-rising demographic groups in America; in 2012, Mitt Romney won only 27 percent of their vote.)

There are people who have doubts Bush will run and who say that even if he did, he wouldn’t win. Perhaps. For my part, I hope he does run, assuming he can do so with, in his words, “joy in my heart.”

But I also hope many others run in 2016, not only those I’m favorably disposed toward (like Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, and Scott Walker) but also those I’ve been more critical of (including Ted Cruz and Rick Perry). Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee would be formidable figures in a contest; I hope they, too, enter the contest. The same goes for Rand Paul, with whom I have substantial disagreements (he is far more libertarian than I am).

Why do I hope the GOP contest will include people I’m not wild about? Because I want as many serious and substantial figures in the race as possible, in order to have the best representatives of various currents of thought (and style) within conservatism make their case. These debates can be clarifying, in a healthy way. (Some of us still regret that Governor Mitch Daniels, one of the most impressive minds and political talents in the GOP, didn’t run in 2012.)

In addition, people who look good on paper and sound impressive when being interviewed on Meet the Press don’t necessarily do well in presidential contests, where the scrutiny and intensity are far beyond what anyone who hasn’t run can imagine. Some people you might think would do superbly well in a presidential contest flame out; others who one might think would flounder rise to the occasion. You never know until the contest begins. So my attitude is the more the better, at least above a certain threshold. (Please, no more figures like Herman Cain, Ron Paul, or Michele Bachmann.)


The 2016 presidential contest should be winnable, but it won’t be easy. Democrats have important advantages right now when it comes to presidential contests. Which is why for Republicans to prevail it will take the best the GOP can produce. Who is that individual right now?

I have no idea. And neither do you. 

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Chris Christie v. Margaret Thatcher

The Star-Ledger, covering comments by Governor Chris Christie to the Republican Jewish Coalition, reported this:

With an eye toward 2016, Christie echoed what has been a consistent theme from him since his re-election win. “I’m not in this business to have an academic conversation. I am not in this business to win the argument. I am in this business to win elections,” he said to laughter. “If we want to just have arguments and stand for nothing, we could just form a university.”


I wonder if Governor Christie is aware that his comment is antithetical to one made by the great British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who said, “First, you win the argument, then you win the vote.”

It’s an odd and worrisome locution by Christie, who seems to think winning arguments is synonymous with standing for nothing. In fact, you win arguments precisely because you stand for something – some set of convictions, some set of principles, some set of ideas. Winning arguments – through reasons, based on marshaling evidence, by appealing to human experience and common sense – is something those in public life should want to do. 

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The Star-Ledger, covering comments by Governor Chris Christie to the Republican Jewish Coalition, reported this:

With an eye toward 2016, Christie echoed what has been a consistent theme from him since his re-election win. “I’m not in this business to have an academic conversation. I am not in this business to win the argument. I am in this business to win elections,” he said to laughter. “If we want to just have arguments and stand for nothing, we could just form a university.”


I wonder if Governor Christie is aware that his comment is antithetical to one made by the great British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who said, “First, you win the argument, then you win the vote.”

It’s an odd and worrisome locution by Christie, who seems to think winning arguments is synonymous with standing for nothing. In fact, you win arguments precisely because you stand for something – some set of convictions, some set of principles, some set of ideas. Winning arguments – through reasons, based on marshaling evidence, by appealing to human experience and common sense – is something those in public life should want to do. 

Having strong beliefs is the reason, at least is should be the reason, one gets involved in politics in the first place. The alternative is to gain power for its own sake, perhaps because one is drawn to the title and perks and prestige; to win elections just to win elections. That’s hardly what lies at the core of the conservative vision.

One final thought: history tends to demonstrate that conservatives need to win arguments before they win votes. They have to persuade the public their ideas, and the assumptions and premises that underlie those ideas, are the right ones, the ones that are most consistent with human nature and best advance human flourishing.

If Governor Christie doesn’t believe these things – if he’s inclined to dismiss those who are busy trying to win public debates about urgent issues – that’s worth the rest of us knowing sooner rather than later. If an aide or confidant to Governor Christie wanted to do him a favor, they could do worse than to give him a copy of Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences.

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Bridgegate Inquiry Verdict Changes Nothing

Reports that a probe of the Bridgegate controversy conducted by outside lawyers at the behest of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has cleared him of wrongdoing is good news for his supporters. According to stories that have been published in multiple news outlets, the inquiry has determined that there is no evidence that Christie helped plot or carry out the bizarre scheme by which officials in his office and allies at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey created a traffic jam on the bridge in order to inconvenience or embarrass the mayor of Fort Lee as revenge for a political slight to the governor.

But those who are hoping this will restore Christie to the strong political position he was in–especially with regard to the 2016 presidential contest–before the story broke in January are bound to be disappointed. While I think it entirely likely, if not probable, that the conclusion that the governor was not personally involved in creating the bridge tie-up will be vindicated by subsequent investigations conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s office and the New Jersey legislature, that won’t stop Christie from being dragged through the mud by those running other probes. Nor will it quiet speculation from unfriendly outlets about what will be learned from the testimony of Christie associates who refused to talk to the governor’s lawyers, who produced this report. That means that although Christie and some of his supporters are acting as if Bridgegate is merely a bump on the road to 2016 that he can overcome, this report is a reminder not only of the difficulty he will have in getting back on message but also the way his opponents—both in New Jersey and in the national media—will use this issue to hound him relentlessly over the scandal in the coming months.

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Reports that a probe of the Bridgegate controversy conducted by outside lawyers at the behest of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has cleared him of wrongdoing is good news for his supporters. According to stories that have been published in multiple news outlets, the inquiry has determined that there is no evidence that Christie helped plot or carry out the bizarre scheme by which officials in his office and allies at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey created a traffic jam on the bridge in order to inconvenience or embarrass the mayor of Fort Lee as revenge for a political slight to the governor.

But those who are hoping this will restore Christie to the strong political position he was in–especially with regard to the 2016 presidential contest–before the story broke in January are bound to be disappointed. While I think it entirely likely, if not probable, that the conclusion that the governor was not personally involved in creating the bridge tie-up will be vindicated by subsequent investigations conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s office and the New Jersey legislature, that won’t stop Christie from being dragged through the mud by those running other probes. Nor will it quiet speculation from unfriendly outlets about what will be learned from the testimony of Christie associates who refused to talk to the governor’s lawyers, who produced this report. That means that although Christie and some of his supporters are acting as if Bridgegate is merely a bump on the road to 2016 that he can overcome, this report is a reminder not only of the difficulty he will have in getting back on message but also the way his opponents—both in New Jersey and in the national media—will use this issue to hound him relentlessly over the scandal in the coming months.

The report, which was paid for by the state of New Jersey, interviewed 70 witnesses as well as reviewing available records. But since the lawyers (led by former Rudy Giuliani chief of staff Randy Mastro) who conducted it are seen as political allies of Christie, Democrats are likely to cast doubt on its findings. Just as important, key figures that did orchestrate the traffic jam, such as Christie’s former deputy chief of staff Bridget Ann Kelly, who did not talk to Mastro because of her potential legal peril, undermined the effort.

But even if subsequent probes by Democrats in the legislature and the U.S. Attorney’s office never prove that Christie was part of the scheme, putting this in his rear-view mirror isn’t as simple as that. The process that will unfold in the legislature and by the Justice Department will ensure that the Bridgegate story will continue to unfold throughout 2014 and perhaps well into 2015. The drip-drip-drip of stories and non-stories about various aspects of the investigation leaked by those with a vested interest in besmirching Christie or at least tying him up in knots in defending his reputation won’t stop.

This is blatantly unfair, as is the fact that the news media was willing to devote more time and resources to covering this story than it was—or still is—to far more serious scandals such as those involving the IRS or Justice Department spying on the press. But at the core of Christie’s problems is something more than just another, if particularly egregious instance of liberal media bias. The fact is that people close to the governor hatched a ridiculous scheme that was intended to advance his political interests. This scheme was absurd and basically pointless but it was a massive and easily understood abuse of government power. Even if he had nothing to do with it, the question of whether a culture of bullying and exacting revenge on opponents fostered by Christie led to Bridgegate will always hover over him.

Christie remains a formidable figure in Republican politics and an able politician. But Bridgegate sullied his reputation in a way that will make it impossible for the governor to recapture the sense that he was the inevitable mainstream GOP choice or even a first-tier candidate for president. He already had serious problems convincing conservatives to trust him. Some will never forgive his 2012 embrace of Barack Obama or his slighting of Mitt Romney during his convention speech that same year, not to mention his pragmatic blue-state emphasis on winning rather than ideology. Bridgegate gave Republicans an excuse to avoid confronting those issues and it isn’t likely they will ever reconsider that decision.

Though he may act as if his plans haven’t changed, even a Christie who is universally acclaimed as innocent on the bridge fiasco—something Democrats will do their best to prevent in spite of the lack of evidence to the contrary—has little chance in 2016. Today’s report doesn’t change that conclusion.

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Rubio and Paul Trading Places?

Much has been made about the fact that Marco Rubio struggled last year and has thrived thus far in 2014. But while Rubio never seemed to have a specific rivalry with Rand Paul (who sparred with Chris Christie and more recently Ted Cruz), the two prospective 2016 presidential candidates seem to have their political fates connected in a way others don’t: one’s loss often accompanies the other’s gain. And this year, as Rubio recovers his footing it’s Paul who appears to be struggling. That’s been fairly consistent with the two Republicans’ shared term in the Senate thus far.

When Rubio burst onto the national GOP stage in 2010 in his Senate race against Charlie Crist, conservatives loved his message but fretted that his political persona was too dependent on that one message. The concern was voiced in August of that year by Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes, who wrote: “In every appearance, including my interview with him in late July, he delivers the speech in whole or in part. There’s a reason for this: It’s an awfully good speech. It’s intensely patriotic and focused on how he’d like voters to see the choice they face in the election. It’s better than any speech I’ve heard from a Republican candidate or elected official in a long time. And Rubio delivers it passionately.”

That was all correct, but a question lingered: the right hoped Rubio would run for president sooner rather than later. Would his policy chops catch up, and could he build a record in time? The answer over the last couple of years, but especially this year so far, seems to be: Yes. His biggest setback has been his attempt to reform immigration law, but it showed at least that he wasn’t shy about putting forth detailed plans and advocating for them. Since immigration reform, he’s put out plans to tackle poverty, economic growth, higher education reform, and he hit his stride when attention turned to foreign affairs with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the popular unrest in Venezuela.

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Much has been made about the fact that Marco Rubio struggled last year and has thrived thus far in 2014. But while Rubio never seemed to have a specific rivalry with Rand Paul (who sparred with Chris Christie and more recently Ted Cruz), the two prospective 2016 presidential candidates seem to have their political fates connected in a way others don’t: one’s loss often accompanies the other’s gain. And this year, as Rubio recovers his footing it’s Paul who appears to be struggling. That’s been fairly consistent with the two Republicans’ shared term in the Senate thus far.

When Rubio burst onto the national GOP stage in 2010 in his Senate race against Charlie Crist, conservatives loved his message but fretted that his political persona was too dependent on that one message. The concern was voiced in August of that year by Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes, who wrote: “In every appearance, including my interview with him in late July, he delivers the speech in whole or in part. There’s a reason for this: It’s an awfully good speech. It’s intensely patriotic and focused on how he’d like voters to see the choice they face in the election. It’s better than any speech I’ve heard from a Republican candidate or elected official in a long time. And Rubio delivers it passionately.”

That was all correct, but a question lingered: the right hoped Rubio would run for president sooner rather than later. Would his policy chops catch up, and could he build a record in time? The answer over the last couple of years, but especially this year so far, seems to be: Yes. His biggest setback has been his attempt to reform immigration law, but it showed at least that he wasn’t shy about putting forth detailed plans and advocating for them. Since immigration reform, he’s put out plans to tackle poverty, economic growth, higher education reform, and he hit his stride when attention turned to foreign affairs with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the popular unrest in Venezuela.

Rubio seemed to sputter in 2013 as Paul saw his moment in the sun. Paul’s famous filibuster not only won him plaudits from both sides of the aisle but also got his fellow Republican senators–Rubio among them–to appear on the chamber floor as supporting characters. Then the Edward Snowden affair happened, and Paul appeared to go from potential dark horse candidate in 2016 to the top tier. As the NSA domestic surveillance revelations were easily folded into the broader narrative of President Obama’s intrusive, big-government agenda, Paul took a step toward the front of the pack.

Part of Paul’s appeal was a term and a concept we’ve come to prize in American politics, with its ubiquity of television cameras and endless debates: authenticity. Paul came across as genuine and comfortable in his own skin, and he spoke confidently and fluently to any audience that would hear from him. It was no surprise that Paul and Christie developed something of a (brief) rivalry; neither pulls punches.

But Paul comes across as genuinely uncomfortable talking about foreign crises where the choice isn’t war or peace but something in the middle. Ukraine has made the contrast with Rubio clear, not just on policy but on the fact that events have shifted onto the latter’s turf. Paul’s TIME magazine piece on the appropriate American reaction to the Crimean crisis has already come in for some tough criticism, for example from National Review’s Patrick Brennan, who called Paul’s ideas “terrible or delusional.” But what caught my attention was more the stylistic clumsiness of the messaging–not that U.S. senators should be graded on whether their prose matches up to Tolstoy’s but to their own. In other words, Paul’s surefootedness is completely absent. For example:

America is a world leader, but we should not be its policeman or ATM.

At the end of the day, I still agree with former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen — the greatest threat to America’s security is our national debt.

Russia, the Middle East or any other troubled part of the world should never make us forget that the U.S. is broke. We weaken our security and defenses when we print money out of thin air or borrow from other countries to allegedly support our own.

Like Dwight Eisenhower, I believe the U.S. can actually be stronger by doing less.

Like Ronald Reagan, particularly regarding Russia, I also believe, “Don’t mistake our reluctance for war for a lack of resolve.”

That’s just a sample, but much of the piece is written that way. It’s unlike Paul to speak without saying something, but he comes close to doing so on Ukraine. More than a week before Paul’s piece was published, Rubio published at Politico an immediate reaction to the crisis, whose applicability showed he was either prepared for the Russian action or he didn’t need to be to know how to react.

The issues underpinning Rubio and Paul’s fortunes demonstrate something else: unlike Christie’s “bridgegate,” which involved his staff, for Paul and Rubio events beyond their control have exerted upward or downward pressure on them–in Paul’s case, the NSA revelations and for both the crisis in Ukraine (and to a lesser extent Venezuela). It shows the degree of uncertainty and luck in the process. But then again, that’s often how it is in the White House too.

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Will the 2016 GOP Nomination Turn on Foreign Policy?

The “trading places” theme of the 2016 presidential election continues, with the latest indication that the Republicans have become the party of internal discord and dissent powered by a younger generation of politicians and voters while the Democrats have become the party of entrenched cliqueocracy. The New York Times reports today on its latest poll, conducted jointly with CBS News, on the political figures each party’s voters want to see run for president.

More than 80 percent of Democrats said they wanted Hillary Clinton to run, with only 13 percent saying they’d rather she not. That is, as the Times notes, “a level of interest in her that no other potential candidates – Democrat or Republican – come close to matching among their party’s voters.” More intriguing are the post-Bridgegate levels of interest in Republican candidates. The support for a Chris Christie candidacy is now ten points underwater. The candidates with the most voter interest on the right–surely having something to do with name recognition–are Jeb Bush and Rand Paul, each at about 40 percent.

The Times continues:

Thirty-two percent of Republicans say they want Senator Marco Rubio of Florida to run, although Mr. Rubio also seems to have fewer detractors than Mr. Bush or Mr. Paul (more do not know enough about him to say). Only 15 percent of Republicans said they did not want Mr. Rubio to run, compared with 21 percent for Mr. Paul and 27 percent for Mr. Bush. Twenty-four percent said they hoped Senator Ted Cruz of Texas would run, compared with 15 percent who said they did not want him to. Fifty-nine percent do not know enough about Mr. Cruz to say.

The poll did not ask about several other potential Republican candidates, including Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. No major candidates in either party have yet declared their candidacy, but several have taken steps indicating that they are seriously considering a run.

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The “trading places” theme of the 2016 presidential election continues, with the latest indication that the Republicans have become the party of internal discord and dissent powered by a younger generation of politicians and voters while the Democrats have become the party of entrenched cliqueocracy. The New York Times reports today on its latest poll, conducted jointly with CBS News, on the political figures each party’s voters want to see run for president.

More than 80 percent of Democrats said they wanted Hillary Clinton to run, with only 13 percent saying they’d rather she not. That is, as the Times notes, “a level of interest in her that no other potential candidates – Democrat or Republican – come close to matching among their party’s voters.” More intriguing are the post-Bridgegate levels of interest in Republican candidates. The support for a Chris Christie candidacy is now ten points underwater. The candidates with the most voter interest on the right–surely having something to do with name recognition–are Jeb Bush and Rand Paul, each at about 40 percent.

The Times continues:

Thirty-two percent of Republicans say they want Senator Marco Rubio of Florida to run, although Mr. Rubio also seems to have fewer detractors than Mr. Bush or Mr. Paul (more do not know enough about him to say). Only 15 percent of Republicans said they did not want Mr. Rubio to run, compared with 21 percent for Mr. Paul and 27 percent for Mr. Bush. Twenty-four percent said they hoped Senator Ted Cruz of Texas would run, compared with 15 percent who said they did not want him to. Fifty-nine percent do not know enough about Mr. Cruz to say.

The poll did not ask about several other potential Republican candidates, including Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. No major candidates in either party have yet declared their candidacy, but several have taken steps indicating that they are seriously considering a run.

It’s certainly true that a complete 2016 preview would include voter opinions on Scott Walker and probably Paul Ryan as well–even though the latter does not appear to be gearing up for a presidential run, he was on the ticket last time and has been a leader of the “reform conservatism” caucus in Congress. But this poll isn’t a zero-sum “who would you vote for” survey, so the results still tell us a lot.

There is more opposition to a Paul candidacy and a Jeb Bush candidacy than to either Rubio or Cruz. In the case of Bush, his last name–as he recently acknowledged–probably has much to do with it. The opposition to Paul is noteworthy. The Kentucky libertarian is far from the divisive figure his father was as a candidate and congressman. Paul’s brand of conservatism has even hinted at a bipartisan appeal, especially on privacy and criminal-justice reform, without earning him the dreaded RINO label.

In fact, the area of Paul’s ideology that would breed concern among the party faithful is his outlook on foreign policy. If that’s the case, it’s significant. Paul’s admirers have always thought the most potent threat within the GOP to Paul’s anti-interventionist foreign policy came from the party elites. That’s one way his supporters have dismissed opposition to his views on foreign affairs: as neoconservative holdovers from the Bush administration.

That’s never really been the case, though. Indeed, if Paul has establishment support in the GOP it’s among the Bakerite realists. There is something ironic about treating a younger generation of conservatives–the George W. Bush team, largely–as has-beens whose old road is rapidly aging while drawing conceptual support and guidance from the prior generation–the George H.W. Bush team, largely. That doesn’t mean Paul’s views are unpopular. They have plenty of support, as evidenced by the fact that while more voters want Christie to sit out this election than run, that’s not even close to true of Paul.

But this does get at one possible obstacle to Paul’s run for the nomination. He is unlikely to have the big-government opponent he’d prefer to contrast himself with. His popularity is due in part to the fact that libertarian economic policy has become more accepted in the GOP in recent years, but that same popularity deprives him of his opposite. Instead, he’s likely to run against a range of candidates who mostly agree with him–and the base–on economic matters but not on foreign policy. It would be a fairly unexpected twist if the post-Iraq and Afghanistan GOP primary turned on foreign policy, but it might just be heading in that direction.

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The Christie Scandal and Journalism 101

Chris Christie’s rough winter has followed a reliable pattern in politics. Though he has yet to be tied directly to the closing of the George Washington Bridge, the whiff of scandal has put him on the defensive and invited the type of scrutiny that usually follows politically wounded frontrunners. Because it dented his image, there have been, and likely will be more, stories of the “maybe we got this guy all wrong” variety. And because it takes place in famously corrupt New Jersey, journalists will instinctively reach for the Soprano State storyline—and not without plenty of justification.

Enter the New Republic’s Alec MacGillis, who has a lengthy article on Christie’s career. It is several thousand words long, and runs out of gas well before the finish line. The headline is “Chris Christie’s Entire Career Reeks,” which aptly sums up the article: throughout Christie’s career, he builds alliances, and as his fortunes rise those of his enemies fall. Something doesn’t smell right to MacGillis, and no doubt there are instances in his career when questions were raised about his knack for playing hardball. But MacGillis gets drawn so far into the complicated world of Jersey politics that he loses his bearings and starts to see corruption everywhere, at some points ditching any pretense of searching for the facts and in the process unfairly maligning not only Christie but others.

This paragraph, on Christie’s reelection campaign, is a good example:

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Chris Christie’s rough winter has followed a reliable pattern in politics. Though he has yet to be tied directly to the closing of the George Washington Bridge, the whiff of scandal has put him on the defensive and invited the type of scrutiny that usually follows politically wounded frontrunners. Because it dented his image, there have been, and likely will be more, stories of the “maybe we got this guy all wrong” variety. And because it takes place in famously corrupt New Jersey, journalists will instinctively reach for the Soprano State storyline—and not without plenty of justification.

Enter the New Republic’s Alec MacGillis, who has a lengthy article on Christie’s career. It is several thousand words long, and runs out of gas well before the finish line. The headline is “Chris Christie’s Entire Career Reeks,” which aptly sums up the article: throughout Christie’s career, he builds alliances, and as his fortunes rise those of his enemies fall. Something doesn’t smell right to MacGillis, and no doubt there are instances in his career when questions were raised about his knack for playing hardball. But MacGillis gets drawn so far into the complicated world of Jersey politics that he loses his bearings and starts to see corruption everywhere, at some points ditching any pretense of searching for the facts and in the process unfairly maligning not only Christie but others.

This paragraph, on Christie’s reelection campaign, is a good example:

For those who got behind the governor, there were incentives. To give but one example: The close-knit Orthodox community in Lakewood had endorsed Corzine in 2009. In March, a coalition of the town’s rabbis and businessmen announced it would be backing Christie this time around. Two months later, the state granted $10.6 million in building funds to an Orthodox rabbinical school in Lakewood, one of the largest expenditures for any private college in the state. (The yeshiva was not exactly cash-strapped: A copy of its application I obtained noted that its endowment “far exceeded” the $1.84 million it was expected to contribute to the project.)

The combination of complex stories and questions of Jewish financial influence on elections almost guarantees that liberal journalists will slip on their biases and their quest for simplicity and fall flat on their faces. Add in the involvement of a Republican, and you have a recipe for journalistic disaster. And that paragraph is a model of journalistic disaster.

The problems with such negligence are manifold, but one surely is that to smear by suspicion and implication an entire religious community because of an obsession with taking down a Republican officeholder is quite obviously morally problematic. But there’s a way to figure this all out. If you weren’t an axe-grinding partisan actor but instead a reporter trying to get the facts, what would you find in this instance?

You would start by wondering, for example, whether it is unique for the Lakewood yeshiva to get state education funding. And you would quickly find that no, it isn’t unique. Christie himself tried to point this out when the state’s leftists, such as Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, criticized him for supporting religious education:

“The speaker is one of the biggest proponents of the [Tuition Aid Grant] program in the state, and I approved the TAG grant program as well,” Christie said today. “From 2000-2012, the Beth Medrash Govoha has gotten $46 million in TAG grants. That’s state money. And the speaker has never raised an objection to that. But now all of a sudden, she objects to her own bill.”

Next, you would probably look into how the Orthodox community in Lakewood, through its rabbinical leadership at the Vaad, goes about making gubernatorial endorsements. You would find, within minutes if not seconds, that the Vaad has a very clearly delineated process for making endorsements at that level: the policy is generally to endorse the incumbent, so as not to get the Jewish community involved in high-stakes partisan politics.

MacGillis would have his readers think the Orthodox community did something unusual in endorsing Christie for reelection when they endorsed his opponent last time around. But it’s no mystery: Christie was the incumbent. In 2009, when they endorsed Corzine, he was the incumbent. The Vaad endorsed Jim McGreevey in 2001, when there was no incumbent. Four years prior, the Vaad did not endorse McGreevey; his opponent that year was Christine Todd Whitman, the incumbent. You get the idea.

I grew up in Lakewood, though I did not attend the yeshiva’s school, instead attending Conservative and modern Orthodox Hebrew day schools. So perhaps I can more easily catch such atrocious mistakes. But the real story, as I explained, would have been very easy to find for anyone looking to get the story right. There are certainly legitimate questions to ask about Christie—having spent much of my life in New Jersey, including working as a reporter, I readily grant that it’s a state whose politics reward, and then perpetuate and produce, cynicism. But it also rewards an honest quest for the truth for those interested in it.

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Christie Hamstrung By Incumbency

The contradiction at the heart of Chris Christie’s successful reelection campaign was that he needed a convincing victory (or at least a victory) to keep his 2016 hopes going strong, yet an actual second term as governor was bound to be an obstacle to those same presidential aspirations in a host of predictable ways. One example was the fact that as governor, he would be restricted in raising much-needed campaign funds from Wall Street due to pay-to-play rules. This had local media speculating, with some justification, that even if Christie won he would be forced to resign to run for president.

Another, more prosaic obstacle would be the traditional second-term blues that term-limited political executives deal with routinely. The irony of Christie’s popularity in a blue state was that being on the ballot for governor made his ideas and policies more attractive than they might otherwise be in New Jersey. That precipitated a certain amount of cooperation from state Democrats, who were no match for Christie. But without him on the ballot anymore, Democrats in the state legislature could much more easily bog the governor down in every conceivable funding fight since lame-duck status drains politicians of at least some of their political capital.

Even before “bridgegate,” that is, Christie’s second term was likely to be a slog. The bridge-closing scandal, however, is not only adding to it but exacerbating the general weakness of his being in office while the Democrats’ most likely nominee in 2016, Hillary Clinton, isn’t. The headline of the New York Times piece detailing these efforts is a bit obvious: “Democrats Grab for a Chance to Halt Christie’s Rise.” Yes, well, no kidding. But the extent of the effort is illuminating:

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The contradiction at the heart of Chris Christie’s successful reelection campaign was that he needed a convincing victory (or at least a victory) to keep his 2016 hopes going strong, yet an actual second term as governor was bound to be an obstacle to those same presidential aspirations in a host of predictable ways. One example was the fact that as governor, he would be restricted in raising much-needed campaign funds from Wall Street due to pay-to-play rules. This had local media speculating, with some justification, that even if Christie won he would be forced to resign to run for president.

Another, more prosaic obstacle would be the traditional second-term blues that term-limited political executives deal with routinely. The irony of Christie’s popularity in a blue state was that being on the ballot for governor made his ideas and policies more attractive than they might otherwise be in New Jersey. That precipitated a certain amount of cooperation from state Democrats, who were no match for Christie. But without him on the ballot anymore, Democrats in the state legislature could much more easily bog the governor down in every conceivable funding fight since lame-duck status drains politicians of at least some of their political capital.

Even before “bridgegate,” that is, Christie’s second term was likely to be a slog. The bridge-closing scandal, however, is not only adding to it but exacerbating the general weakness of his being in office while the Democrats’ most likely nominee in 2016, Hillary Clinton, isn’t. The headline of the New York Times piece detailing these efforts is a bit obvious: “Democrats Grab for a Chance to Halt Christie’s Rise.” Yes, well, no kidding. But the extent of the effort is illuminating:

Democratic Party operatives have churned out 11 different videos depicting Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey as a revenge-happy gridlock maker who cannot keep his story straight.

They are unleashing attacks on any Republican in the country who dares to defend him publicly, from a potential Senate candidate in New Hampshire to a New York congressman.

And they are coordinating strategy at the highest levels of the party with a new standing agenda item on conference calls: how to undermine Mr. Christie, a top Republican prospect for reclaiming the White House.

As much as Mr. Christie’s current troubles are about the stumbling of a rising star in the Republican Party, they are driven, too, by emboldened Democrats who rue their passivity four months ago as Mr. Christie scored a landslide re-election victory, startling the party by securing support from traditionally left-leaning voter blocs.

Now, sensing a chance to redefine Mr. Christie for a national audience, those Democrats are determined to transform him into a toxic figure, whose name is synonymous with the ugliest elements of politics: partisan bullying and backslapping cronyism.

Christie was long seen by Democrats as the most formidable GOPer in 2016, so this is no surprise. But they’ve made clear that they aren’t taking the scandal’s recent toll on his presidential hopes for granted. Democrats seem to be betting that the scandal’s timing–at the beginning of the term–is giving the attention span-deprived public ample opportunity to forget about it two years from now.

They are also hoping to use it as a national distraction for the upcoming elections. ObamaCare’s disastrous rollout and constant stream of bad news means the Democrats will, for the most part, want to talk about anything else (aside from those who want to tout “fixes” to the law). Some of that will be transparently fabricated and tiresome, like the White House’s manufactured war on women. But in case voters are smarter than Democrats give them credit for, the left will need a backup plan. The bridgegate fiasco is a genuine scandal, as well as one that could still produce revelations.

But the specific focus on 2016 is yet another example of the permanent campaign. Or, as I wrote last month, the “end of the presidential campaign.” I was arguing that the possibility that Hillary Clinton might announce her intentions after this year’s midterm elections means there is no longer any real break in the process. That has relevance to the Christie story as well, because not only are the Democrats seeking to make the Christie scandal about 2016 (understandable, since their localized accusations are falling to pieces), but the fact that the Democrats’ preferred candidate is out of office and being supported by a “shadow campaign” gives them time and flexibility Christie simply doesn’t have as a sitting governor.

Whether they can succeed in making Christie toxic in other states’ races remains to be seen. But it’s no surprise they are exploiting his constraints as a sitting governor to try to prevent him from holding even higher office.

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Christie’s Losing Fight for His Political Life

In the first days after the Bridgegate scandal, it appeared likely to me that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 had been lost. But it never occurred to me that within a month he would be fighting for his political life rather than just a shot at the presidency. Yet the latest twist in this bizarre scandal has brought Christie to the point of a political death watch. On Friday, the New York Times reported that the lawyer for David Wildstein—Christie’s longtime friend,  political ally and the man he appointed to the board of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that administers the bridge—stated in a letter that evidence exists tying the governor to the scandal.

It is true that the language in the letter was, as the Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein pointed out, “slippery.” The governor, in fact, did not deny knowledge that the lanes were closed but rather that he knew the traffic jam was the result of a political prank played on the citizens of the region in order to get even with the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for his refusal to endorse Christie’s reelection. As such, it may well be that Wildstein’s mouthpiece is merely seeking to exonerate his client on charges that are serious enough to cause him to invoke the Fifth Amendment when he testified about the incident before the state legislature. On its own, the letter means nothing.

The willingness of the Times—and those who followed its characteristically anti-Republican lead on the story—to jump on the lawyer’s vague hints about possible evidence illustrates the widespread desire of the liberal mainstream media to destroy Christie.

But the blistering counter-attack from the governor’s office on Wildstein, his lawyer, and the Times tells us just as much about how much trouble Christie himself thinks he’s in today. By issuing a statement that dredges up every questionable incident in Wildstein’s life as proof of his lack of credibility, Christie’s office raised as many questions as it answered. After all, if Wildstein is as bad a character as Christie now claims, how is it that the governor not only wanted him as a friend but also gave him one of the most choicest patronage plums available for Christie to bestow? However justified the governor’s denunciation of Wildstein may now be, the desperate nature of this counter-attack may be a sign that Christie knows this struggle isn’t about the presidency but his ability to serve out the remainder of his term in Trenton.

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In the first days after the Bridgegate scandal, it appeared likely to me that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 had been lost. But it never occurred to me that within a month he would be fighting for his political life rather than just a shot at the presidency. Yet the latest twist in this bizarre scandal has brought Christie to the point of a political death watch. On Friday, the New York Times reported that the lawyer for David Wildstein—Christie’s longtime friend,  political ally and the man he appointed to the board of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that administers the bridge—stated in a letter that evidence exists tying the governor to the scandal.

It is true that the language in the letter was, as the Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein pointed out, “slippery.” The governor, in fact, did not deny knowledge that the lanes were closed but rather that he knew the traffic jam was the result of a political prank played on the citizens of the region in order to get even with the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for his refusal to endorse Christie’s reelection. As such, it may well be that Wildstein’s mouthpiece is merely seeking to exonerate his client on charges that are serious enough to cause him to invoke the Fifth Amendment when he testified about the incident before the state legislature. On its own, the letter means nothing.

The willingness of the Times—and those who followed its characteristically anti-Republican lead on the story—to jump on the lawyer’s vague hints about possible evidence illustrates the widespread desire of the liberal mainstream media to destroy Christie.

But the blistering counter-attack from the governor’s office on Wildstein, his lawyer, and the Times tells us just as much about how much trouble Christie himself thinks he’s in today. By issuing a statement that dredges up every questionable incident in Wildstein’s life as proof of his lack of credibility, Christie’s office raised as many questions as it answered. After all, if Wildstein is as bad a character as Christie now claims, how is it that the governor not only wanted him as a friend but also gave him one of the most choicest patronage plums available for Christie to bestow? However justified the governor’s denunciation of Wildstein may now be, the desperate nature of this counter-attack may be a sign that Christie knows this struggle isn’t about the presidency but his ability to serve out the remainder of his term in Trenton.

The cascade of negative stories about Christie that Bridgegate has unleashed seemed to be creating a death-by-a-thousand-cuts scenario that liberals could use to take down a political foe. By forcing the governor and his defenders to respond not only to the allegations of responsibility for the bridge lane closings but also accusations that he had wrongly withheld Hurricane Sandy aid dollars from cities with mayors who didn’t play political ball with his administration, such as Hoboken’s Dawn Zimmer, Christie’s political future would appear to be destroyed even if none of the charges turned out to be true. But the letter from Wildstein’s lawyer raises the possibility that there may be evidence that Christie lied about the bridge even after the scandal broke in January. If so, you can forget about the discussions about whether Christie can recover in time to run in 2016 or even if he should remain as head of the Republican Governor’s Association. If true, Wildstein’s bid to evade accountability for his role in this mess could end by forcing Christie’s resignation.

But even if Wildstein’s accusation comes up short on proof and Zimmer’s claim that she was blackmailed to agree to back a Hoboken project that would benefit another Christie crony also cannot be substantiated, Christie’s governorship has suffered a mortal wound.

If he is lucky, he will spend the next four years fighting a rear-guard action to fend off claims that he knew about the bridge scheme, the alleged Hoboken shakedown, and every other possible problem that will emerge as a Democratic legislature,the U.S. attorney and their cheerleaders in the press put his administration under a microscope. If he isn’t lucky, his opponents will find one or more instances of direct ties between the governor and some misdeed that he can’t talk his way out of or be dismissed as partisan smears.

In other words, whether he is guilty or not, his ability to govern New Jersey, let alone roam the country as a major political figure, may already be over.

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Why Bridgegate Won’t Clear Jeb’s Path

Chris Christie’s “bridgegate” scandal had such an impact on the emerging 2016 GOP primary field not only because Christie was considered the early frontrunner but because of why he was considered the frontrunner. In addition to his advantage as a governor and his success in getting Democratic and minority votes, Christie was the 2016 candidate who was moderate enough to win prominent establishment backing but still conservative enough to envision winning the nomination.

Thus while the primary fight would no doubt be bruising, it was conceivable that the other categories–libertarian, religious conservative, defiant conservative firebrand, etc.–would be represented by more than one candidate and split the remaining vote. Christie, then, had both no competition and too much competition. I think this scenario always overestimated Christie’s odds at winning the nomination because at some point the competition would thin out and supporters would coalesce around fewer candidates, but there’s no question it made him a strong contender.

If Christie is no longer the frontrunner, that means there’s an opening for a “moderate” with conservative credentials. And that, in turn, means we’ll have a resurgence in speculation over whether Jeb Bush will run. Politico catches the latest, which was Bush’s radio interview yesterday mulling it over:

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Chris Christie’s “bridgegate” scandal had such an impact on the emerging 2016 GOP primary field not only because Christie was considered the early frontrunner but because of why he was considered the frontrunner. In addition to his advantage as a governor and his success in getting Democratic and minority votes, Christie was the 2016 candidate who was moderate enough to win prominent establishment backing but still conservative enough to envision winning the nomination.

Thus while the primary fight would no doubt be bruising, it was conceivable that the other categories–libertarian, religious conservative, defiant conservative firebrand, etc.–would be represented by more than one candidate and split the remaining vote. Christie, then, had both no competition and too much competition. I think this scenario always overestimated Christie’s odds at winning the nomination because at some point the competition would thin out and supporters would coalesce around fewer candidates, but there’s no question it made him a strong contender.

If Christie is no longer the frontrunner, that means there’s an opening for a “moderate” with conservative credentials. And that, in turn, means we’ll have a resurgence in speculation over whether Jeb Bush will run. Politico catches the latest, which was Bush’s radio interview yesterday mulling it over:

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush says he will make a decision on whether to run for president in 2016 at “the right time” — later this year.

“I don’t wake up each day saying, ‘Now what am I going [to] do today to make the decision?’ I’m deferring the decision to the right time, which is later this year,” Bush said in an interview Wednesday with Miami CBS affiliate WFOR.

The brother of former President George W. Bush and son of former President George H.W. Bush said he will make up his mind based on whether he can run an uplifting campaign.

Jeb Bush is also pushing back, ever so diplomatically, against his mother’s comments last year that “there are other families” besides the Bushes, and it’s time to give someone else a turn. After Jeb’s brother, George W. Bush, was asked about the comments by Jay Leno (and said his brother would make a great president), CNN quoted Jeb’s response: “Even when I was a teenager, I’d listen to her respectfully and never always followed what she said, even though she was probably right. And now at the age of 60, I really feel I don’t have to listen to every word she says,” he said, drawing laughs. “At some point you got to make these decisions like a grown up.”

But his name came up on Leno’s show again this week, in a more positive mention:

Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner made his first ever appearance on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” on Thursday, just to get some facetime with Leno before he leaves the show on Feb. 6. …

Asked what he thought of the upcoming presidential race in 2016, Boehner said, “I’m not endorsing anybody. But Jeb Bush is my friend and, frankly, I think he’d make a great president.”

Jeb Bush not only has the gubernatorial success and moderate credentials to match those of Christie, but he is also thought to have the crossover appeal to voters outside the GOP’s traditional support blocs that Christie does. So it’s reasonable to assume that Bush, who in fact has picked fewer fights with the grassroots than Christie has, could step into Christie’s shoes. But does that make him, like Christie was thought to be, the frontrunner?

Probably not, because Bush’s path to the nomination would be complicated in a few ways. The most obvious is his last name, and the GOP, with a bevy of young stars, will probably only be more hesitant to nominate Bush now that it appears Hillary Clinton is the Democratic frontrunner. One advantage Republicans would have over Clinton is that she represents a bygone era both for the country in general and the Democratic Party in particular, having already spent eight years in the White House of a president with a very different political agenda than the one she served as secretary of state. It’s doubtful the grassroots, so opposed to the GOP’s history of next-in-linism, would be satisfied with a Bush-Clinton election.

Additionally, Christie wasn’t the only prospective candidate standing in Jeb Bush’s way. The general consensus was that either Bush or Marco Rubio would run in 2016, but not both. They served the same state and would thus split their constituency, most likely ensuring neither would win. Would the party prefer to run Jeb or Rubio? The latter seems the better bet at this point.

Competing with the senators won’t be easy, considering Rand Paul’s popularity and Ted Cruz’s Texas network. And the governors, like Scott Walker and Mike Pence, would thrive against a wounded (or absent) Christie. Luck has never been on Jeb Bush’s side with regard to the presidency: no one doubts his qualifications, experience, intelligence, diligence, or sense of service, to say nothing of his accomplishments in office in areas like education reform. But even with Christie weakened by bridgegate, his path to the presidency is strewn with roadblocks.

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Dems & Media Put a Fork in Christie

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s loyalists are still hoping that the media overkill on Bridgegate and the transparently partisan nature of the charges being lobbed at him and his administration will somehow turn public opinion in his favor. But though that hope might have seemed reasonable, if a bit optimistic, only a few days ago, after the latest development in the widening ring of scandals, such a perspective must now be viewed as a fantasy. After the charges levied at the Christie administration by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer about being shaken down to back a development project linked to a friend of the governor, further talks about his 2016 ambitions is pointless.

It may well be that the governor had no personal involvement in the bizarre traffic jam scheme or the alleged shake-down of the Hoboken mayor and that the several upcoming investigations by the state legislature and the U.S. attorney will find no criminal liability on his part or anyone close to him. But in terms of the political impact of the media feeding frenzy, the legal outcome is almost beside the point. What has happened to Christie this month is a textbook example of how scandals can sink a public figure. His guilt or innocence, the partisan nature of the charges about the use of Hurricane Sandy relief funds, and the fairness of the probes as well as the disproportionate media attention given to Christie scandal stories may well influence how posterity regards these unfolding events. But they will almost certainly make it impossible for Christie to lay the groundwork for what was widely assumed to be an inevitable presidential run as head of the Republican Governor’s Association or to do anything other than defend himself in the coming months or even years.

In other words, the Christie for President bandwagon is not only stopped in its tracks. In the space of a few weeks it has become a pipe dream.

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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s loyalists are still hoping that the media overkill on Bridgegate and the transparently partisan nature of the charges being lobbed at him and his administration will somehow turn public opinion in his favor. But though that hope might have seemed reasonable, if a bit optimistic, only a few days ago, after the latest development in the widening ring of scandals, such a perspective must now be viewed as a fantasy. After the charges levied at the Christie administration by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer about being shaken down to back a development project linked to a friend of the governor, further talks about his 2016 ambitions is pointless.

It may well be that the governor had no personal involvement in the bizarre traffic jam scheme or the alleged shake-down of the Hoboken mayor and that the several upcoming investigations by the state legislature and the U.S. attorney will find no criminal liability on his part or anyone close to him. But in terms of the political impact of the media feeding frenzy, the legal outcome is almost beside the point. What has happened to Christie this month is a textbook example of how scandals can sink a public figure. His guilt or innocence, the partisan nature of the charges about the use of Hurricane Sandy relief funds, and the fairness of the probes as well as the disproportionate media attention given to Christie scandal stories may well influence how posterity regards these unfolding events. But they will almost certainly make it impossible for Christie to lay the groundwork for what was widely assumed to be an inevitable presidential run as head of the Republican Governor’s Association or to do anything other than defend himself in the coming months or even years.

In other words, the Christie for President bandwagon is not only stopped in its tracks. In the space of a few weeks it has become a pipe dream.

There’s a lot about the Hoboken charges that should give Christie’s defenders pause. The allegations that the Christie administration was using federal Hurricane Sandy relief funds as patronage plums to be distributed to friends and denied to foes sounds like politics as usual in New Jersey and many other states. But it is political poison to a man who posed as the champion of those who were affected by the storm as well as someone who won applause for placing their needs above partisan loyalties. The governor’s attack on the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives for holding up the relief bill because of concerns about the money being diverted for patronage or unrelated causes now seems hypocritical.

But worse than that, it will set off another round of investigations by the U.S. attorney as well as the legislature that will mire him and all those around him in the scandal. As with other such investigations, the Justice Department is likely to keep digging until it finds someone to indict even if Christie himself is exonerated. Suffice it to say that Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno—the person accused by Zimmer of threatening  her—will have to do better than today’s statement of denial in which she refused to answer questions or to specify exactly what she said to the Hoboken mayor.

The problem here isn’t so much the specifics of each part of the scandal, be it the traffic jams, the tourism ads that featured Christie, aid to Hoboken, or the various tales of Christie playing the bully with political foes. Indeed, the complicated nature of Mayor Zimmer’s claim that Hoboken was shorted on aid funds—a charge that the governor’s office refutes with its own set of facts and figures—makes it almost impossible for the public or the press to sort this out. 

What we do know is that the steady drumbeat of stories has overwhelmed Christie’s defenders. One scandal was hard enough. A series of scandals that are tied together only by the common thread of political thuggery on the part of Christie’s people establishes a narrative that becomes impossible to deny. While each may be refuted or questioned on its own—for example Zimmer’s failure to come forward with these very serious and potentially criminal charges until after the governor was already under siege is highly suspicious—taken as a whole they create a story line of scandal that is overwhelming. It no longer matters that the liberal mainstream media had a motive to take down the Republican who was surely the greatest threat to a Hillary Clinton coronation in 2016. All that counts now is that Christie is on the defensive and will remain there for the indefinite future. That means his utility as head of the Republican Governor’s Association is at an end and donors preparing to back his potential presidential candidacy would be wise to start looking elsewhere for a GOP contender in 2016.

Christie’s defenders will have plenty to do in the coming weeks and months sorting out the serious charges from the frivolous ones now pouring down on him. It is to be hoped that when the dust settles he will be able, once again, to address the serious reform agenda he so ably championed. But now even that is on hold. For Christie to contemplate anything more than holding on to the governorship, is at this point, utterly unrealistic.

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Without Bluster, Christie’s Not That Interesting

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was under the national media’s microscope yesterday when he delivered his annual “State of the State” address in Trenton only days after the “Bridgegate” scandal broke. Christie responded with a restrained, intelligent speech that acknowledged that fiasco but concentrated on a reform agenda on taxes, crime, education, and other nuts-and-bolts issues that have endeared him to his state’s voters. These are the same topics he would have highlighted even if his political trajectory had not been jeopardized by last week’s revelations of his staff’s bizarre scheme to create traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge. So the address was a chance for Christie to get back on message and to show that he can still govern and do so in a manner that will bolster his reputation as an effective and innovative governor who can work with Democrats for the common good. Judged on its content and by the measured manner with which it was delivered, Christie did just that.

But there is no escaping the fact that the Christie who spoke yesterday was not quite the same guy who had become a national figure in the last year. As many observers noted, the governor’s manner was noticeably more restrained than it had been last year when he took a bow in Trenton in the wake of his successful efforts to help the state recover from Superstorm Sandy. Bluster and flamboyance were replaced by a more low-key approach that showed Christie was acutely conscious of the fact that he could no longer get away with a cavalier dismissal of critics who believe the Bridgegate misdeeds as well as the examples of the governor’s office exacting revenge on his foes were directly linked to his brusque and often arrogant style.

While the change of tone won’t stop Democrats, both in New Jersey and elsewhere, from making his life miserable investigating the scandal and seeking to undermine any efforts for bipartisan compromise, it does offer him a chance to start the difficult task of making the public forget about the nightmare of the last week. But it also raises the question of whether the new, less abrasive Christie will be as interesting and ultimately as much of a star as the old one. Based on yesterday’s evidence, the answer is not so much.

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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was under the national media’s microscope yesterday when he delivered his annual “State of the State” address in Trenton only days after the “Bridgegate” scandal broke. Christie responded with a restrained, intelligent speech that acknowledged that fiasco but concentrated on a reform agenda on taxes, crime, education, and other nuts-and-bolts issues that have endeared him to his state’s voters. These are the same topics he would have highlighted even if his political trajectory had not been jeopardized by last week’s revelations of his staff’s bizarre scheme to create traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge. So the address was a chance for Christie to get back on message and to show that he can still govern and do so in a manner that will bolster his reputation as an effective and innovative governor who can work with Democrats for the common good. Judged on its content and by the measured manner with which it was delivered, Christie did just that.

But there is no escaping the fact that the Christie who spoke yesterday was not quite the same guy who had become a national figure in the last year. As many observers noted, the governor’s manner was noticeably more restrained than it had been last year when he took a bow in Trenton in the wake of his successful efforts to help the state recover from Superstorm Sandy. Bluster and flamboyance were replaced by a more low-key approach that showed Christie was acutely conscious of the fact that he could no longer get away with a cavalier dismissal of critics who believe the Bridgegate misdeeds as well as the examples of the governor’s office exacting revenge on his foes were directly linked to his brusque and often arrogant style.

While the change of tone won’t stop Democrats, both in New Jersey and elsewhere, from making his life miserable investigating the scandal and seeking to undermine any efforts for bipartisan compromise, it does offer him a chance to start the difficult task of making the public forget about the nightmare of the last week. But it also raises the question of whether the new, less abrasive Christie will be as interesting and ultimately as much of a star as the old one. Based on yesterday’s evidence, the answer is not so much.

Christie’s rise to prominence in the last two years was not based as much on his ideas as his personality. He is just one among a number of successful reform-minded Republican governors who have sought new solutions to the deadly spiral of debt and taxes with which liberal big-government schemes have saddled their states. He deserves credit for making progress on these issues, especially in a blue state with a Democratic legislature. But as good as his record may be, it does not especially stand out when compared to the achievements of some of his peers who are also presidential possibilities, such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker or Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal.

What made Christie special was his demeanor. His lack of inhibition when telling people off and dismissing their criticisms was as refreshing as it was often politically incorrect. The YouTube videos of his town hall meetings and press conferences where he jousted with foes were entertaining because of his attitude, not the strength of his positions. Christie’s magic was based on the public’s delight in his brash manner and unfettered opinions, especially his penchant for blasting anyone who dared to question his ideas or motives. It was always an open question whether this Northeast everyman would play as well in flyover country as he did in the metropolitan New York media market, especially when his embrace of President Obama after the storm alienated many conservatives. But as long as he pulled no punches, Christie had little to worry about—a conclusion that was reinforced by a landslide reelection in which his support from women, Hispanics, and blacks seemed liked a preview of a GOP victory in 2016.

But shorn of the bluster and reduced to a calm advocate of good government, the new Chris Christie is not as interesting as the old one.

Having risen to the top of the polls of future Republican presidential contenders largely on the strength of being a media darling, it’s far from clear that the Christie who has been transformed in the space of a few days into a press piñata can stay afloat in the conversation about 2016. The problem is not only that he is taking a pounding from liberals who rightly feared him as the GOP’s best threat to derail a Hillary Clinton presidency. It’s that a Christie who is on the defensive and must now worry about appearing to be a bully will be hard-put to distinguish himself from other Republicans with similar ideas but without the baggage that the governor must now carry as he goes forward.

Unless Democrats and their press auxiliaries can dig up something that directly incriminates Christie in the bridge lane closings, he will survive this rough patch. Polls show he has retained, at least for the moment, his support in the state. But the chastened Chris Christie who must now adopt a more generous tone toward his foes is not the same man who rocketed to fame as the tough guy who wasn’t afraid to abuse the press or tell voters that it was none of their business where his kids went to school or what they did. Even if everyone forgets about the bridge a year or two from now (and given the Democratic interest in making sure we won’t, don’t expect that to happen) Christie can never be quite the same politician again. In some ways that might even turn out to be an improvement since a bit more humility and restraint when torching anyone who isn’t a cheerleader would be a good thing for the governor. But the Christie who emerges from this crisis isn’t the kind of candidate who is likely to become the Republican nominee in 2016.

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