Chris Christie is learning who his friends are. And his enemies.
Gov. Chris Christie's George Washington Bridge scandal is not taking a toll, so far, on his political support among establishment Republicans or even moderates. But the 2016 presidential race is just ramping up.
WASHINGTON — The George Washington Bridge scandal is a big problem for Chris Christie, obviously. It’s damaging his reputation as a take-charge administrator and has made him the subject of days of pointed political jokes.
If it turns out he had any foreknowledge that his aides were creating traffic jams in Fort Lee, N.J., by blocking bridge access lanes, his electoral career may be dry and crumbly toast. (He says he had no idea what was happening, and there’s no hard evidence indicating otherwise.)
But the crisis may have one wan upside for the New Jersey governor: He’s finding out who his friends and enemies are just as the 2016 presidential race begins.
So far that’s breaking down along relatively predictable lines. Establishment Republicans and current and former GOP officials who might be labeled as moderates have been generally supportive. Many waited until after Governor Christie’s lengthy press conference Thursday to weigh in. But they say he stood and answered lots of questions, took responsibility, fired somebody, and seemed contrite.
Former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, a Christie mentor, said the presser went “extraordinarily well," though he added that he still wants to know why Christie aides thought the Fort Lee move a good thing. Ex-New York City Mayor Rudoph Giuliani, himself a former GOP presidential aspirant, said that the bridge blockage was a stupid prank that got out of hand and that Christie “is one of the most honest, straight guys you’re going to meet."
Former Reagan speechwriter and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan said that Christie on Thursday “acquitted himself well” but that his uphill fight for the GOP nomination “just got uphiller."
“Those Republicans who didn’t quite like him for other reasons have something new to hang their antipathy on,” Ms. Noonan writes.
Indeed, the further right on the GOP spectrum the observer, the less enthusiastic the praise. Thus House Speaker John Boehner was lukewarm about Christie’s apology, saying “I think so” when asked whether the New Jersey governor remained a viable 2016 candidate. Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, a tea party favorite and potential rival for the GOP nomination, was chillier. In brief remarks with reporters after a meeting at the White House, Senator Paul declined to comment on the specifics of the case, saying it was a local political matter, but that “I have been in traffic before, though, and I know how angry I am when I’m in traffic, and I’m always wondering, ‘who did this to me?’ ”
Why does all this matter? Because the 2016 campaign is now under way, writes political scientist Jonathan Bernstein in an inaugural post at his new Bloomberg View perch.
What’s going on now is the so-called invisible primary, in which presumptive candidates jockey for the approval of key party figures, from elected leaders to fundraisers to top turn-out-the-vote folks in Iowa and New Hampshire.
“So we can speculate about how voters might react to this scandal two years down the road. But we will learn more from good reporting about how Republican Party actors are handling the news – both actors who were prepared to support Christie and those who would’ve found him at least minimally acceptable as the party’s nominee,” writes Mr. Bernstein.
The attitude of moderate Republicans in particular is important because they are the subset of the party, however small, that is Christie’s logical base of support. If they desert him, he is in real trouble.
In that context, it is important that South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) has expressed support for Christie, writes political scientist John Sides on the “Monkey Cage” Washington Post political science blog.
“She may not be a true moderate, but she endorsed Mitt Romney in 2012 and seems willing to back relatively moderate Republican candidates,” Mr. Sides writes.
OK, what about Democrats? Given a teed-up opportunity to take a four-iron to a GOP contender, most are swinging for the green.
The Democratic-controlled New Jersey legislature is gearing up for lengthy investigations, for instance. Next door, newly installed (and liberal) New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called the bridge lane closures “unacceptable." Then he added that the stunt “is not professional, it’s not mature, it’s absolutely immoral."