Now that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been exonerated in the “Bridgegate” scandal, will he accelerate past the pack of other GOP hopefuls in the 2016 presidential race?
Whoa! you say. He hasn’t been officially exonerated in last year’s political drama, when some of his operatives organized partial closure of the George Washington Bridge – a political dirty trick aimed at a Democratic mayor, which caused massive delays for commuters, school buses, and commercial and emergency vehicles.
But the NBC affiliate in New York reports that, nine months into a federal investigation, the US Justice Department has found no evidence that Governor Christie ordered the bridge lane shutdown or knew ahead of time what his aides had concocted – several of whom were forced to resign in the uproar that followed.
For the record, federal officials will only say that the investigation continues. Not letting the matter drop are Democratic state lawmakers, who have been conducting their own investigation and would love to nail Christie.
"We have clear proof that an abuse of power originated in the governor's office," said Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who co-chairs the legislative committee investigating Bridgegate. "What we don't know is why and who authorized it. And any attempt to end the investigation prematurely is an effort to condone that conduct."
Christie has long since apologized for what happened on his watch as New Jersey’s governor. But in a radio interview Thursday, he said he wasn’t surprised at this latest news, which seems to confirm his position all along.
For now, at least, this week’s report is largely good news for Christie, although any mention of the lane-closure episode is not a plus for the politically ambitious governor.
“The bad news remains that politically as chief executive it looks like he was not in control of his administration at the time when this occurred,” Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, New York, told NBC. “So that remains the downside for him. That doesn’t go away, but this panel provides greater credibility barring any further revelations coming out.”
Washington Post political blogger Chris Cillizza agrees that the report is “very good news for Christie and his potential 2016 presidential prospects.” But, he adds, “Christie's exoneration from involvement in Bridgegate doesn't mean that it will go away.”
“It has already robbed him of the two most precious things for a presidential candidate at this stage of the race: buzz and momentum,” Cillizza writes. “And, even if Christie did nothing wrong, his cluelessness about the political retribution two of his top aides were exacting will be worrisome to plenty of Republican donors and voters.”
So where do things stand with Christie’s apparent presidential bid? NJ.com, an online collaborative of newspapers, reports this:
“Gov. Chris Christie is heading back to New Hampshire for the third time in four months today to campaign for GOP gubernatorial and US Senate candidates – and, of course, to press the flesh of the state's voters, who lead off 2016’s presidential primaries…. By the time the week is out, Christie will have visited 28 states – including Tuesday's visit to South Carolina, which holds the first presidential primary in the South – and will have raised a whopping $75 million for the Republican Governors Association [which he chairs].”
According to the RealClearPolitics polling average, Christie leads any would-be Republican rivals for the GOP 2016 presidential nomination by a fraction.
Here’s the way RCP national political reporter Scott Conroy describes Christie in New Hampshire Friday: “Stumping alongside New Hampshire’s Republican gubernatorial candidate, Walt Havenstein, for the third time in three months, Christie back-slapped, small-talked and bear-hugged his way around the room with Clintonian ease. He signed autographs, posed for photos, and – through no fault of his own – completely overshadowed the mild-mannered candidate whom he was ostensibly there to promote.”
To those who’ve been watching PBS’s Ken Burns series, “The Roosevelts,” this week, that certainly brings to mind an earlier Republican politician with White House ambitions.
Speaking at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., this week, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said Christie reminds her of Theodore Roosevelt.
“Clearly there’s some resemblance with Theodore Roosevelt…. That direct confrontational style of leadership,” Ms. Goodwin said, as reported by NJ.com. (One easily imagines Christie thundering, “Bully!”)
“With Teddy and Christie, its part temperamental; to be that maverick to be an outlier,” she said. “I think it’s also one of the things that, for a time, got both Teddy and Christie support across party lines.”
“I think the big question for him and for his leadership now, which is what all the people I’ve studied have shown, is how do you react to adversity?” Goodwin said. “Can you acknowledge errors and learn from your mistakes?”