You can’t see Paris from the George Washington Bridge. But the terrorist atrocity in the City of Light may be the event that makes it possible to look at Chris Christie without thinking of traffic cones and an act of gratuitous and capricious exercise of government power. If 2016 is going to be, as it looks to be at the moment, a foreign policy election where a good record on terrorism is a vital asset, then Christie’s chances to make an impact on the presidential race can’t be entirely discounted. Moreover, as the New York Times reports, his eloquent invocation of 9/11 in stump speeches may be starting to win the hearts of New Hampshire Republicans giving him a chance of at least a respectable finish in the first-in-the-nation primary. But the question to ask about Christie today isn’t just how much playing the 9/11 card will be worth to his candidacy. The other question some in the party may be asking today as his fortunes improve is whether a strong showing by Christie will actually serve to further divide GOP moderates and make it easier for a conservative like Ted Cruz or an outlier like Donald Trump to cruise to the nomination.
Even at his peak of popularity after his landslide re-election in 2013, the New Jersey governor wasn’t the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination that his backers claimed him to be. A northeastern politician best known among members of his party’s conservative wing for embracing Barack Obama days before the 2012 presidential election, Christie was always a long shot who would have needed a lot of things to go right to be his party’s choice for the White House. But after the Bridgegate scandal, Christie became a fringe candidate with no reasonable hope of winning.
But in a presidential field that had at one point 17 candidates, entering the race this year was something like buying a lottery ticket for Christie. Even though the odds were steep, with that many credible and not so credible contenders in the race, anything could happen so why not take a chance and throw your hat in the ring?
Christie was right about the “anything could happen” theory. Some strange things have already occurred in the race as Donald Trump went from a punchline to undoubted frontrunner. Ben Carson had a brief stay at the top of the polls. Scott Walker, a candidate that many thought a certain first-tier contender crashed and burned several months before a vote was cast. And Jeb Bush, the man who was supposed to be the frontrunner that would dominate the race, has floundered.
But even as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have established themselves as the most credible alternatives to Trump and Carson, Christie has remained among the also-rans stuck in the low single digits. He didn’t make the cut for the last main stage debate and it’s not clear whether he can recover enough to get back among the real contenders at the next one on December 15. The current Real Clear Politics average of national polls has him in eighth place with 3 percent. Even in New Hampshire, where he has devoted most of his efforts, he is no better than seventh in the Real Clear average with only 5.8 percent. In Iowa, he is stuck in tenth.
But Christie is one of the few Republicans who make sense about terrorism. And though he may be overplaying the 9/11 card in the mode of Rudy Giuliani, it has given voters an opportunity to reassess someone that many dismissed as a blowhard or a bully. Moreover, at a moment when the political conversation has been dominated by President Obama’s stubborn refusal to reassess a failed policy against ISIS and equally misguided wild statements from Trump and Carson, Christie has spoken common sense about these issues in a way that has only been approached by Marco Rubio.
Even if we assume — as perhaps we should — that the renewed interest in foreign policy and terrorism will be to his advantage, it’s hard to plot out a path to victory or even contention for Christie. He needs to survive the next two months and then pull off an upset of heroic proportions in New Hampshire to pump some life and cash into his candidacy. But even if that happens, it’s not easy to see where he would have another chance for a significant victory. Indeed, the only thing that Christie might accomplish by staying alive as other moderates fold is to further divide the votes of those who believe that either Trump or Cruz will lead the GOP to a Barry Goldwater-style landslide defeat. In order for him to do more than that, other seemingly stronger moderates like Rubio would have to collapse and Bush and Kasich will have to quit sooner rather than later. In other words, even after Paris, Christie remains one of the longest shots in the race.
In the end, all Governor Christie might have accomplished by running this year is to eventually erase Bridgegate from the ledger. That won’t be enough to make him a first-tier candidate, let alone the nominee or the next president. But considering how far he had fallen, it’s not exactly nothing.