There are two possible scenarios for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. In one, the drip-drip-drip of the George Washington Bridge scandal envelops him, turning off donors and dashing his presidential hopes. In the other, nothing more comes out about him that is damaging, and he gradually returns to the pre-scandal persona of a tough-minded, regular guy who gets things done. Sure, the aura of “front runner” status evaporates, but that was an illusion anyway.
Since the bridge story broke, Christie’s staff no doubt have felt as if they’ve been engaged in trench warfare, batting back each inaccurate story and fighting with reporters to at least check out the allegations from newly discovered, aggrieved Democrats. Unfortunately, in the act of battling back, the bridge scandal stays in the news.
But Thursday, the Christie team may have moved the needle a bit in the direction of the second, more favorable scenario. He got back to his favorite environment — the town hall meeting. He could be self-deprecating about his weight and sweet with a little girl who wants her house fixed. He could give a bipartisan shout-out to the Democratic mayor of Belmar, very clearly pushing back on the accusation that he’d use Sandy recovery funds in a partisan way. (“He has worked for the people of his town and has reached out to me, given me praise when he thought I deserved it. Gave gentle criticism when he thought we deserved it. But, we’ve continued to talk all the way through it and I think it’s helped to make things in Belmar better.”)
According to a Christie aide, the unscreened audience did not ask any questions about the bridge scandal. The local media gave generally favorable reviews. (The Asbury Park Press: “In the first town hall meeting of his second term, Gov. Chris Christie returned to his signature forum with ease, playing the straight shooter, the problem solver and, naturally, embracing a made-for-YouTube moment when a young girl in pigtails asked him when her home, damaged by superstorm Sandy, would be fixed. … Flashing some of the political muscle he has held back since the George Washington Bridge scandal engulfed his administration, Christie renewed his vow to take beachfront homeowners holding out on granting dune easements, of which there are about 600, to court in order to protect the shoreline from future storms.”)
All of this was quickly made available to the press, with the Christie staff’s signature promotion machine back in gear. No doubt this was one of the better days they’ve had in the second term.
One day will not make a comeback. Christie will have to string good days and then weeks and months together both to show he is undaunted by the scandal and to return attention to his can-do agenda. If the agenda is still Sandy-laden (not the juiciest issue minus the bridge scandal for the national media), this may be a blessing. He can regain his standing at home while re-establishing the leadership profile that got him into the top tier of 2016 hopefuls. He will, if he continues the comeback — and doesn’t the press always love a comeback story? — still have to develop a substantive agenda that plays on the national level. It won’t be enough simply to say, “I really am the bipartisan guy who gets stuff done.” He’ll need to explain what he wants to get done.
For all intents and purposes, the presidential pre-primary process has been frozen. Donors are playing the watch-and-see game. Other candidates who will now get increased scrutiny may fall out or rise, depending on their performances. In other words, he’s back in the game, but the lead is gone.
A final note that relates not only to Christie but to other governors: Foreign policy is becoming a bigger and bigger issue as President Obama’s world view proves to be unworkable and dangerous. The governors should be using the time not only to work on a critique of the Obama/Hillary Clinton/John Kerry foreign policy but also to develop their own foreign policy vision. If they are going to get to or stay in the top tier, they’ll need one.