Commentary Magazine


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:

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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