New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie hasn’t had a good year so far, to put it mildly. The bridge scandal snapped his momentum after a big reelection victory and consumed the mainstream media for weeks. However, while the bridge episode has fallen on him, his staff and a potential presidential run like a ton of bricks (steel?), he’s actually been fortunate lately.
For starters, his attorneys scoured the place, interviewed the governor and his advisers and found no evidence he knew about the scandal in advance. A report with hundreds of pages and loads of documentary evidence is compelling if not definitive. This won’t clear Christie in the eyes of critics and many voters, but now he knows at least there is no smoking gun and no evidence to undercut his assurances that he learned about the scandal as it played out in the media. The gaggle of former prosecutors working for him also found no other staffer involved, which should dampen the claim that there was a pervasive environment of revenge-style politics in his office.
As important as the report, though, is that no one has benefited from the damage to Christie. The field is still unsettled. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush is still undecided. Christie may have lost mythical poll points in a race two years away, but he certainly hasn’t been supplanted by a single, formidable contender. The more candidates get into the race (I think we’re up to four governors in the Midwest alone) the more fragmented the vote and the easier for a more prominent figure with high name recognition to eke out a win. While Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is expending considerable money and time creating a big organization in a bunch of states, this approach proved useless to Mitt Romney in 2008. In a sense, all he’s done is raise expectations.
In addition, Christie still is the most competitive candidate in many polls against Hillary Clinton. In the swing state of Virginia the Quinnipiac poll finds him only four points in back of her, the best of any of the candidates surveyed.
While he’s been busy, as it were, other forces have created problems for Christie’s competitors. He didn’t have to attack Paul for isolationism; Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) did it for him. Paul, one of only two senators to oppose the Russian sanctions bill and one of two Republicans to oppose an Iran sanctions bill, remains an inviting target should, as I suspect, Christie attack him from the right as a former prosecutor and tough-guy defender of the United States
With Condoleezza Rice taking a bigger role in the party’s electoral scene, we also see the mainstream segment of the party continue to rise in prominence and effectiveness. (“Sources say Rice plans to use her closed press [National Republican Congressional Committee] speech to discuss the importance of passing immigration reform legislation and call for a stronger, more internationalist foreign policy — a direct rebuke to the rising strain of libertarianism within the party.”) Positions that Christie is likely to adopt therefore will be getting support from one of the most popular Republicans around.
Finally, at some point, the media moves on. It can handle only one or two over-hyped stories at a time (e.g. airliner disappearance and Russia). Eventually, the Christie scandal becomes “old news,” provided nothing else comes out. And let’s not forget that the media loves a “comeback” story.
Now Christie isn’t home free. It’s not even clear he’d still want to enter the race for president. But judging from the run of better-than-usual good news and the gleeful reaction of staffers in a flood of emails, he is better off than he was a month ago. By far.