It is a cliché that failure is a better test of a person’s character than success. Like most clichés, there’s a lot of truth in this one. But as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is about to find out, there are certain kinds of success that bring with it even sterner tests than he might have faced had his career not been on the upward trajectory that it currently finds itself.
At this point, it seems certain that Christie’s landslide reelection tonight will be the start of a long run toward 2016 in which the governor will attempt to build on the idea that his triumphs in New Jersey are a harbinger of what he and his party can achieve on a national stage. But, as I first noted on Sunday, this will mean that his current status as the shining example of a reasonable, effective, and electable Republican in which he has been held up as an alternative to the Tea Party will probably change as far as much of the media is concerned. Once the dust settles from tonight’s celebration and probably even before that, taking down Christie may well replace attacks on Ted Cruz as the idée fixe of liberal journalists and pundits.
An earlier indication of that is the scuttlebutt coming out the new political book Double Down about the Mitt Romney camp’s vetting of Christie as a vice presidential candidate as well as Politico’s piece today alleging that the governor has a “tax problem.” The point is, the love that Christie has been getting from the mainstream media, while the right was blasting him for embracing President Obama after Hurricane Sandy or for criticizing House Republicans, is coming to an end as he transitions to being the most likely member of the GOP to replace the president.
Instead of basking in the adoration of his fans on YouTube, the coming months and years will find Christie increasingly in the cross-hairs of a liberal media that is hoping that someone like Ted Cruz or Rand Paul is the GOP nominee in 2016. Part of this focus will simply come with the territory of being a presidential candidate instead of a governor, albeit of a state that abuts the media capital of the nation. He will also suffer the burden of being the early front-runner in the Republican nomination race. While that is not always a kiss of death—despite his numerous problems and the burden of his own health-care bill, Romney survived to go on to win the GOP nomination—it is a lot harder to win from the pole position in politics than coming from behind because of the intense scrutiny that it brings.
This means that although Christie is right to say all the issues raised about his background have already been litigated in two statewide elections, every charge will be hashed and rehashed endlessly by journalists who paid little attention to what was said in New Jersey in 2009 or 2013. That will include legitimate questions about policy questions as well as the usual smears and distortions that are part and parcel of political debate.
To date, Christie has shown he has the intestinal fortitude to stand up to being vivisected by the press and to shine on the big stage of national politics. But what he has endured in the past will be nothing to what will follow this evening’s festivities. Liberals who have spent the last year trying to paint Cruz as the new Joe McCarthy won’t give up on that theme, but they will also be working hard to chip away at Christie’s well-earned reputation as a straight talker and man of integrity.
Moreover, instead of using his example to show up Cruz and other Tea Partiers, they will now try to link him to them. Part of this will be justified, since as New Jersey Democrats have asserted and as Christie will tell Republican audiences, he is a conservative and has largely governed as one.
But from this point on, the focus of Christie’s mainstream media coverage will increasingly turn from one burnishing his credentials as a politician that can reach across the aisle to one of damaging the Republicans’ best hope of winning the White House in 2016.
This is the sort of thing that would test the patience of any man. But it will be a crucial indication as to whether the notoriously thin-skinned Christie is ready for the trials of politics on a national level.