Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press/AP
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks at the Energy Sector Luncheon in Calgary, Canada, on Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014.

Panel lets Chris Christie off 'Bridgegate' hook. Is he, really?

With the latest legislative report in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie seems to have put the “Bridgegate” scandal behind him. That frees him to act more and more like a 2016 presidential candidate.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s presidential prospects – already pretty good compared to other Republicans with White House dreams – got a boost with the latest report on the “Bridgegate” scandal.

If you’ll cast you mind back some 14 months ago, that’s when some members of Republican Christie’s staff concocted a political dirty trick against a Democratic foe by ordering the shutdown of traffic lanes to the George Washington Bridge, causing massive slowdowns.

Investigations commenced and a few heads rolled, but the key Watergate-like questions remained: What did Christie know, and when did he know it?

This week, a New Jersey joint legislative panel let the Governor off the hook. Sort of.

"At present, there is no conclusive evidence as to whether Governor Chris Christie was or was not aware of the lane closures either in advance of their implementation or contemporaneously as they were occurring," the report states. "Nor is there conclusive evidence as to whether Governor Christie did or did not have involvement in implementing or directing the lane closures."

In a court of law, Christie would be found innocent. In the court of public political opinion, however…..

As Olivia Nuzzi at the Daily Beast points out, “while the legislative committee's findings … lay blame at the feet of Christie's former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and former Port Authority executive David Wildstein, they do not fully exonerate Christie.”

“To the contrary,” Nuzzi writes, “the report assigns responsibility for the actions of his staff and appointees to Christie, claiming they acted ‘with perceived impunity and in an environment, both in the [governor's office] and the Port Authority, in which they felt empowered to act as they did, with little regard for public safety risks or the steadily mounting public frustrations’.”

In any case, the air seems to have gone out of “Bridgegate.”

Meanwhile, as NBC News political reporter Leigh Ann Caldwell points out, the normally (and volubly) opinionated Christie – perhaps mindful that 2016 approacheth, the time when a potential candidate’s every word is inspected for its gaffe potential – has toned down the rhetoric, restraining any impulse to speak out on every issue, especially those that are controversial.

“Christie has plenty of defining characteristics. Being bashful is not one of them. He has built a career on his straight-talking, bombastic ways of interacting with reporters and the public and has built a record on his willingness to buck his own party for either what he thought was right, his New Jersey constituents wanted or what was best for him,” Caldwell writes.

“But in recent months, with plenty of attention given to his own potential presidential candidacy, Christie has transitioned from offering his opinion on nearly everything to a more muted tone on the critical – and controversial – issues of the day,” Caldwell continues, ticking off the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, immigration, the common core education program, and the US Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision regarding birth control and health insurance.

So how’s Christie doing politically? The picture is mixed.

The Monitor’s Linda Feldmann reported this in October: “Gov. Chris Christie is now polling at his lowest favorability rating to date as governor of New Jersey. Just 42 percent of the state’s adults view him positively and 45 percent view him unfavorably, according to the latest Rutgers-Eagleton poll. His favorability rating has declined by 7 percentage points during the past two months.”

Big deal or no?

“I’m not sure that national voters particularly care about how a [presidential] candidate might be doing in his home state,” David Redlawsk, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., told Feldmann. “But where it matters is that we’re seeing a dramatic partisan gap in opinion about Christie. One of his selling points has been that he can reach across [partisan] lines.”

Among Republicans nationally – the ones who will be anointing their champion for 2016 – Christie is doing quite respectably. He’s tied for third place with Rand Paul, according to RealClearPolitics, just behind Paul Ryan, and several percentage points behind front-runner Jeb Bush.

Except for Rep. Ryan, he’s doing better than any of the others in a mock one-on-one with Hillary Clinton.

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