Chris Christie is plunging into what amounts to a cross-country revival tour, looking to recover from a clumsy political scandal and reclaim his place as a promising Republican presidential prospect.
In one recent week, it was on-the-ground politics in Tennessee and New Mexico. This week, after a campaign stop in Pennsylvania, the New Jersey governor returns to the late night comedy circuit with an appearance on NBC’s “Tonight Show.” Then he’ll stop by Mitt Romney’s Utah summit, a private event for donors and GOP establishment leaders, and the week after that he heads to Washington to court Christian conservatives at a national gathering of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
All the while, he’s raising a record-setting amount of money for other Republicans, and bolstering his political network in all the right places – Iowa and New Hampshire, in particular.
The question remains whether Christie can recapture the aura of a front-runner and the confidence of donors who, since the bridge scandal, have been entertaining the possibility of a Jeb Bush presidential run. Nothing Christie said at his memorable 90-minute news conference in January denying prior knowledge of the traffic-study-turned-revenge-operation has been proved untrue. Yesterday his chief of staff testified Christie was unaware before the story broke in the media. And yet, to many observers’ surprise, the scandal still hangs like a cloud over Christie’s presidential prospects.
Perhaps the scandal sapped his bipartisan appeal and tough-guy manager image. Or maybe the scandal just gave donors and supporters time to consider other options. But two other factors contributed to Christie’s ongoing political doldrums. First, he has been — understandably so — focused in large part on his state’s Sandy recovery. That is old news for the media and not very elucidating in terms of his presidential prospects. With nothing to divert attention away from his association with the bridge scandal, it has continued to define him more than supporters anticipated. Second, we are still in the stage of the pre-primary jostling where donors and supporters look for candidates without “baggage.” Why get Christie if we can get X with no bridge scandal? The attitude is understandable but not realistic. Every candidate has faults and baggage of some type or another. The trick is finding someone with less baggage than the other guys and gals or one whose positives so outweigh the negatives that it is worth the risk. (Hillary Clinton in betting on the latter.) Nevertheless, many voters and donors quickly disillusioned by the bridge scandal have stalked off, certain they can do better.
The question then remains whether Christie can get back his groove and be a competitive candidate in 2016. Three things, I’d suggest, will need to happen.
First, Christie will need a message that is something other than his bipartisan appeal (greatly diminished now) and his gubernatorial credentials (lots of contenders will have those). There has to be a distinctive message or agenda that convinces Republicans it’s really worth taking Christie, bridge scandal and all.
Second, I don’t see how Christie remains a viable top-tier player if Jeb Bush decides to run. Jeb has the Bush name, but that piece of “baggage” seems like a small carry-on these days. Jeb Bush’s appeal as a mainstream, effective reformer and his network of donors overlap Christie’s to such a degree that it is hard to see how Christie could carve out a separate niche if Jeb Bush runs. At this point, the comfort level with Jeb Bush and familial connections of many donors, supporters and operatives would trump support for Christie.
And finally, there is Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). He has managed to stay largely out of the presidential limelight, but he remains popular with most factions of the party and has a strong connection to former donors for Mitt Romney. If for example, Jeb Bush doesn’t run and none of the governors considering a run catch fire, Ryan’s star may rise and he may well decide (or been implored to) run. In that case, once again Christie’s standing would suffer.
In sum, Christie perhaps unfairly has been tarred by a scandal for which he bears no personal responsibility. (Ironically, Hillary Clinton seems able to duck responsibility for a scandal, Benghazi, over which she did have responsibility.) Christie will need the stars to align — a compelling message and opponents to disappear — to have a real shot at the nomination. Could it happen? Just about anything could in 2016.