New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie must do three things in the short-term: Continue governing with confidence, make sure handling of the bridge investigation is beyond reproach and keep national donors if not on his side, at least in wait-and-see mode.
On the governing front, Christie and his staff were out and about, not in crisis mode but in promotion round. The usual sprinkling of YouTube videos and Sandy clean-up stops were back. He’s not quite through apologizing, but he’s signaling that he will move on:
He is certainly showing a sunnier face and the Jersey pride that state voters have warmed to. It is as if after winning the campaign, he is running another campaign to assure voters they were right to re-elect him.
On the bridge issue, he issued a paper announcement that he is hiring the Gibson Dunn law firm and its partner, Randy Mastro, former assistant U.S. attorney and N.Y. Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s former chief of staff, to have “an outside, third-party perspective to the situation, and . . . be a valuable asset as we move forward. This Administration is committed to ensuring that what happened here never happens again. That’s what the people of New Jersey deserve.” The statement reiterates that the administration is “fully cooperating with the U.S. Attorney inquiry and other appropriate inquiries and requests for information.” That suggests his lawyers aren’t raising barriers such as executive privilege. It’s smart to move the scandal to other hands, both to put distance between Christie and the investigation and to make certain everything is done by the book. Christie has set a high bar for cooperation and transparency, which he’d better clear.
And finally, Christie so far is managing his national donor base. They will abandon him if it turns out he knew something about the bridge incident or there are other problematic situations, but at least for now they remain enthusiastic. Politico reports, “Ken Langone, a Republican mega-donor and supporter of Chris Christie, said Thursday that more than 500 people have asked to attend an event he’s holding in Florida with the New Jersey governor and that many of them have praised Christie for the way in which he has dealt with the scandal that’s embroiled his office.” The bridge incident may freeze donors for a while as they see how things pan out and kick the tires of other candidates; Christie would be smart to let them regain confidence and perhaps delay a decision on running for more than a year.
Working in his favor is the absence of a sure-fire mainstream presidential candidate. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Republican Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) could very well not run. Donors with whom I have spoken are impressed with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, but he too is a question mark and, more than other candidates, will have to show he can put together a presidential-level operation with a solid message. The bridge scandal may have given Walker some breathing room to prepare and eventually impress enough donors to fund a viable campaign.
As Christie’s scandal traverses from the front pages to the back of the paper (or to the local news section) in Tri-state, papers he will have the opportunity to return to full-time governance. That means he can’t have any more surprises and will need some solid achievements to remind voters and activists why they liked him in the first place.