Don’t Count Christie Out?

Ponnuru isn’t:

I’m amazed by how many people are writing off Christie’s chances in 2016. The party establishment still thinks he’s a winner, his defects from the point of view of the conservative base of the party are a lot smaller than those of the last two nominees, and the latest poll numbers suggest this scandal isn’t obsessing voters as much as it is the press. I still think he’s got a better shot than anyone else for the Republican presidential nomination.

The Fix crew agrees:

Our case for Christie as front-runner — or, maybe, more accurately first among almost-equals — is built around the idea that there is no perfect/electable conservative in the race and that Christie has a decent chance of beating out Jindal, Rubio and Walker in the battle to be the establishment candidate. (There is a whole other primary — where Rand Paul is the front-runner — that will pick the outsider candidate to battle the establishment pick.) Of that quartet of credible establishment conservatives, Christie is the one who, at first glance, could most easily put together the tens (and probably hundreds) of millions of dollars needed to run real operations in a series of states in short order.

Yglesias throws cold water:

The relevant things about the 2016 primary are that it’s happening right now and that it’s really hard to win. It’s happening right now in the sense that in order to win, any candidate needs to first gain the allegiance (or at least nonhostility) of a wide range of elites outside his immediate political circle. House members from South Carolina. State senators from Iowa. Anti-abortion activists in New Hampshire. Talk radio hosts. Fox News executives. Donors. Lobbyists. State-level Chamber of Commerce chiefs. These people are paying attention right now, and they’re thinking about who they want to back and who they want to bandwagon against. And there’s just no way this bridge thing is making any of those people more likely to support Christie than they were six months ago. Republican elites are mostly looking to find a candidate who is both conservative, effective, and electable and this makes him look less electable and less effective without making him look more conservative. It’s bad news.

Weigel highlights a new Christie poll, which contradicts the ones we flagged yesterday:

Christie’s strength among Republicans has waned. His overall approval is down, sure, from 68 percent last summer to 55 percent now. Much of the leakage is coming from Democrats (down 5 points) and independents (down 22 points). But he’s lost 15 points among Republicans—down from 96 percent approval to 81 percent approval. Not great.

The Christie Scandal Has Legs

Shafer predicts that it will go on and on and on:

Like so many scandals, this one has been fueled by an official investigation. Lacking subpoena power to gather evidence and compel testimony, journalists depend on those who do have such powers, and in the bridge case it’s the state legislature. Both branches of the New Jersey legislature are controlled by Christie’s political enemies, the Democrats. … [N]o matter what anybody tells you, Chris Christie is the quarry here, not any of his staff or appointees. As mentioned above, testimony, subpoenas, and investigations stoke the news furnace whether they’re productive or not. Add a presidential front-runner such as Christie to the mix and political contention — not just within New Jersey but across the border into New York, where Gov. Cuomo and members of his party are glad to help hurt Christie — and you’ve got the makings of a long-running story.

But Christie’s polling hasn’t taken much of a hit, yet:

[L]ook at the Monmouth poll, the only one taken in New Jersey since the scandal began. … Republicans are sticking by Christie, giving him an 89% approval rating which is in line with the 85% GOP support he received last month. The Republican uptick is a better omen for Christie than anything else in the poll. There are conservatives who, like M. Stanton Evans once said of Nixon and Watergate, like the governor better because of the scandal.

Update: An NBC poll released today also finds that the scandal hasn’t damaged Christie as much as you might expect:

Nearly 70 percent of Americans say the bridge-closure scandal engulfing Chris Christie has not changed their opinion about the New Jersey governor, according to a new NBC News/Marist poll. In addition, 44 percent of respondents believe he’s telling the truth about his knowledge of the events surrounding the controversy.

And far more Americans view him as a strong leader rather than as a bully.

But the survey also shows that the potential 2016 Republican candidate has lost ground to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in an early hypothetical presidential match up and now trails her by 13 points.

If Not Christie, Who?

Beinart eyes the GOP’s shallow bench:

There are other potential Republican contenders who share some of Christie’s strengths. Like Christie, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker can run as a tough, capable manager who isn’t from Washington. Like Christie, Rand Paul has defied his party on key issues—for instance, NSA surveillance—and may have somewhat greater appeal to the young. But of the potential candidates right now, only Christie can run as the bipartisan to Clinton’s partisan, the outsider to her insider, and the plain-speaking everyman to her scripted, poll-tested inauthenticity.

The weaker a political party, the more it requires a candidate of outsized reputation or unusual talent to overcome its deficiencies. That’s what that Republicans had in 1952, when a party still paying for its opposition to the New Deal changed the subject by nominating the general who oversaw D-Day. It’s what Democrats had in 1992, when a party hemorrhaging support among white voters found a governor gifted and ruthless enough to win some of them back. And it’s what the GOP had with Chris Christie, the rare national Republican who seems neither removed from the problems of ordinary Americans nor hostile to the cultural changes transforming the country.

Republicans had better hope Christie can still be that man. Because it’s hard to see who else in their party can.

I find it hard to disagree. Scott Walker as presidential timber? Seriously? Kilgore doubts Christie can recover:

Personally, I never saw Christie winning the nomination; his record on guns, his lack of ties to the Christian Right (his mockery of the “Shariah Law” obsession will infuriate them) and his support for Medicaid expansion would be terrible handicaps even when memories of his “treasonous” cooperation with Barack Obama on Sandy response late in the 2012 campaign faded. But whatever else transpires from the strange saga on the George Washington Bridge, Christie has very likely lost the talisman of being a certain general election winner for the GOP.

Chotiner agrees that Christie’s 2016 strategy is in shambles:

It will simply not be possible to view him in the same light. “Toughness” will come across as bullying; “straight-talk” will seem gimmicky; anger will appear thuggish.

What this means, most likely, is that he will have to reinvent himself into a different kind of politician: more buttoned-up, more responsible, less wild. This is a very difficult thing for even a skilled politician like Christie to do (especially if not all of his outbursts are planned). But it also defeats the entire purpose of his candidacy. Why not just nominate Marco Rubio or Scott Walker? (It also makes it impossible for him to paper over his differences with the Republican right; his plan was to do so by using his tough-guy demeanor.)

Drum’s bottom line:

I could see Christie winning if the country were undergoing some kind of horrific disaster, like the Great Depression. In a case like that, it’s possible that Americans would just want someone who’d kick all the right asses and wouldn’t much care about the other stuff. But 2016 seems likely to be a fairly ordinary year, with a decent economy and no huge foreign crises. If that’s how it turns out, I have a hard time seeing how Christie manages to win.

Christie Is Busted?

This sure doesn’t look good to me: Christie is photographed yukking it up with David Wildstein and Bill Baroni of the Port Authority three days into the GWB traffic scheme to punish a Democratic mayor for not endorsing him. That follows the governor’s insistence that he could barely remember any serious interaction with Wildstein “for a long time”. That could still be true, depending on your definition of a long time, but it sure looks fishy to me. And it will, I presume, to potential primary voters.

One other bell that rang for me about this the other day. Why, I wondered, was it so important for Christie to get endorsements from Democrats in a campaign he was winning anyway in a landslide? Because it was really part of a presidential primary argument that only he, among the possible contenders, can deal with Democrats! So this was all part of scheming for the presidential nomination and nothing to do with New Jersey at all. Which makes it even more, well, calculated and icky.

The Christie Scandal Isn’t Over

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First Read says that “it’s looking like only the end of the beginning”

The Bergen Record reports that New Jersey Democrats plan to issue a new round of subpoenas as soon as today. “Assemblyman John Wisniewski said he plans to issue subpoenas demanding documents from the governor’s former deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly and spokesman Michael Drewniak, along with other aides whose names surfaced last week in documents related to the lane closures in early September.” Wisniewski even dropped the “I”-word — impeachment. “The Assembly has the ability to do articles of impeachment” if necessary, said Wisniewski, who added, “We’re way ahead of that, though.” (Still, mentioning the I-word only ratchets things up.)

Corn and Kroll highlight texts that may refer to other Christie officials:

Christie asserts that Kelly was the only member of his political team in on the bridge caper. But if others were aware of Baroni’s stonewalling, the governor has a problem—especially if that includes McKenna, whom Christie has used to probe the bridge scandal. At the least, it might be ill-advised for the governor to have a fellow who apparently praised Baroni’s bogus testimony in charge of penetrating the cover-up.

Then there’s the feds’ new investigation into alleged misuse of Hurricane Sandy funds for a p.r. campaign. And the NYT has uncovered more rather brutal politicking with Steven Fulop, the mayor of Jersey City – another local figure abruptly punished and cut off from Christie because he wouldn’t add another endorsement to the governor’s landslide re-election prospects. Andrew McCarthy’s view:

Do I believe Chris Christie instructed his people to retaliate against Sokolich, Fulop, and perhaps other specific Democrats? Highly unlikely. Do I believe Christie directed his trusted aides — officials who’d been with him a long time and had a good idea of the limits of their authority — to line up as many supportive Democrats as possible and not bother him with a lot of details about how they went about it? Well now . . .

Before the NYT story on Fulop went up, Cillizza wondered if more examples of political retribution would surface:

Democrats have long argued that Christie is a political bully masquerading as a straight talker (Buono said Christie runs a “paramilitary organization” on MSNBC Thursday) and that there are many more episodes of political intimidation out there.  Are there? We all know about Christie’s famous/infamous confrontations with reporters and teachers but will something new come to light that shows the sort of tactics on display in bridge-gate were closer to standard operating procedure than the exception to the rule? Every media organization in the country is currently looking into past decisions made by the Christie Administration to answer that question.

Maggie Haberman raises further questions:

Will Christie be subpoenaed?

Officials on the legislative committee that subpoenaed documents from former Port Authority appointee Wildstein have not ruled out the possibility that they will subpoena the governor himself to testify.

Christie was adamant that he knew nothing about the issue, pinning the blame entirely on rogue staffers. There’s been nothing released so far to contradict that.

But if the governor is forced to testify, it will be a spectacle. He could deliver a strong performance that strengthens his case that he knew nothing about the mess. But it will also draw maximum attention to the scandal, and it’s never a good look for a sitting elected official to be compelled to swear they’re telling the truth and nothing but the truth.

Hertzberg thinks Christie “has probably lost his chance to be the Republican Presidential nominee in 2016”:

With so much more Bridgegate baggage still to be delivered, the load is just too heavy. I expect that the Republicans, once the Rand Paul-Ted Cruz Punch-and-Judy show exhausts itself, will go with some intermittently rational-sounding intercoastal governor. Tea Party or no Tea Party, they usually end up picking one of their most electable—anyhow, least unelectable—candidates. That might’ve been Christie. It isn’t anymore.

Update from a reader:

When I saw the headline about the new investigation, the Sandy funds used for commercials, I initially thought, ok, doesn’t sound so terrible. But then when you read deeper, the investigation isn’t about using Sandy funds for advertising the state to tourists; it is that Christie’s people rejected another, lower bidder because the one they chose had planned an advertising campaign featuring Christie and his family and not so much New Jersey as the other proposal did – the allegation being essentially that they were using the funds for campaign ads. However, if you look at this man’s approach to everything, it is likely that featuring him in ads was not campaign related specifically, but because the man is such a narcissist he and his people probably felt featuring him was the best way to sell the state. Look at the keynote RNC speech where he spent 90% of the time talking about himself; the press conference last week, which was all about Chris Christie and his feelings, and oh, the bridge thing. All politicians are narcissists, but Christie takes it to a new level; it is fascinating, he is the Beyoncé of politicians.

Well there’s a mental image.

How Truthful Was Christie?

John Dickerson looks at the pickle the governor has put himself in:

The hope with this kind of press conference is that by showing that you have nothing to hide, you rebuild credibility. But as you let it all hang out, you also build a Jenga tower—an impressive structure that raises the stakes. Christie made a lot of promises Thursday afternoon: He didn’t know about the episode; he had been lied to; the bullying wasn’t indicative of his administration; he was simply a longtime acquaintance of David Wildstein, the Port Authority official who took part in the closure, not a childhood friend; he didn’t condone a culture of retribution; he didn’t know the exact details of the supposed traffic study that was used as cover for the lane closures. If one of those turns out not to be true, then the entire structure comes crashing down.

Cassidy makes a similar argument:

In apologizing and taking responsibility for what emerged from his office, he did what had to be done. But in simultaneously putting the blame on a single staffer and saying he had no involvement whatsoever, he staked his career on the belief, hope, desperate gamble—call it what you want—that no new information will emerge to challenge his version of events. If Kelly, or anybody else, contradicts Christie and provides evidence to back up his or her story, the governor is toast.

Beutler’s take:

My gut tells me it’s unlikely that Christie was genuinely unaware of and uninvolved, either in this specific lane closure or other scandalous acts of political retribution.

Remember, the breezy nature of the comically damning email exchange between his allies — “Time for a traffic problem in Fort Lee,” “Got it” — suggests this wasn’t a one-off kind of tactic. And when you look past Christie’s affect, and at the actual words he said during his press conference, you encounter a bunch of oddities and inconsistencies.

At the same time, Christie’s meta-handling of this whole thing — mocking the reporter who first asked about his involvement, brutally trammeling his advisers who are now free to dish, the abject apology and denial, the willingness to endure a nearly two-hour grilling — bespeaks either a real confidence in his innocence, severe denial or a pathological confidence that he can still get away with it.

David Graham imagines the best-case scenario:

If Christie is telling the truth—it’s hard to imagine he’d lie brazenly and publicly with a U.S. attorney and the state legislature breathing down his neck—he keeps his credibility. But what about his competence? How is it possible that one of his closest aides was running a rogue political vendetta out of his office, without the knowledge of the governor or any of his other top aides? That raises serious questions about Christie’s reputation as an effective, hands-on manager. How would such an executive function atop the federal government if he can’t even handle Trenton?

Tomasky has questions:

What was redacted (or can we just say censored?) from those emails and texts? Was this really “the exception, not the rule” in how the Christie administration tries to enforce political loyalty? We’ll presumably find out answers to these questions.

And if even Christie is telling the truth, that Wednesday was the first time he’d heard that the lane closures were a political act, all that means is that he went out of his way to make sure he didn’t hear it, which in turn means there was a grotesque abuse of political power that happened right under his nose and that he not only didn’t try to get to the bottom of, but tried to sweat it out until January 15. That’s some definition of leadership.

Is The Christie Scandal Criminal?

TPM asks around:

Interfering with peoples’ ability to drive between states by closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge between New York and New Jersey might be a crime on its own. Law professors at two different schools pointed TPM to federal civil right laws, in particular Section 241 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code, which begins:

If two or more persons conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person in any State, Territory, Commonwealth, Possession, or District in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same …

According to Supreme Court precedent, your right to interstate travel is protected under the above statute, said Frank Askin, a professor at Rutgers University School of Law. Federal civil rights statutes also treat the use of federal interstate highways as a protected activity.

In the bridge scandal, the now-infamous “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email sent from a Christie aide in the governor’s office to a Christie ally at the Port Authority could arguably establish a conspiracy, said Burt Neuborne, a professor at New York University School of Law. Neuborne portrayed a charge based on these statutes as close to a slam dunk.

“The real question is more a prosecutorial discretion,” he said. “Is this low-level harassing kind of activity such a terrible thing? You have to decide whether you want to unload the heavy artillery.”

The Press On Christie’s Presser

The NYT dug up old clips of Christie acting like a bully. Recent events make them much more damning than they were previously:

Anne Marie Squeo spells out why the scandal is so devastating:

During a press conference, Christie said, “I am who I am, but I am not a bully.” And maybe by Webster’s dictionary standards, he isn’t abusive or intimidating per se. For sure, he has strong positive attributes –genuine, smart and pragmatic. But when you start listing the characteristics most closely associated with Christie, it’s hard not to find the words pugilistic and caustic are front of mind. … [Christie] says he had nothing to do with Bridgegate, and no evidence has been released to suggest otherwise. But his personal brand makes it easy to believe he was and that’s the kind of culture he developed and rewarded. And that’s the jam he needs to get out of to have a serious run at the White House.

Cillizza thought the presser went well:

It became clear as the news conference wore on (and on) that Christie and his team had decided beforehand that he was going to stay at the podium until no reporter (or anyone else) in the room could think of any more questions. That seems like the right approach — get out everything you can in a single day and make clear that you are open and ready to answer whatever is asked of you. As the presser wore on, some of the more “traditional” Christie began to peek out — he could have done without his answer on knowing David Wildstein in high school — but we still think politicians are better off going long rather than short when it comes to press conferences called to address controversies.

Josh Green isn’t so sure:

One school of thought in professional crisis management is that it’s best to come clean all at once: Say everything you know and answer reporters’ questions until they run out. That was obviously Christie’s approach, and it didn’t serve him well. The direct, forceful statement and list of actions he delineated at the beginning petered out into standard-issue political dodges and passive-voiced buck-passing. “Mistakes were made,” he said at one point. The longer Christie talked, the less he sounded angry and resolute and the more he sounded as if he were making excuses. It became harder to believe that he could have been ignorant of what his closest staffers were up to. The famous Christie narcissism also reappeared when he began referring to himself as a straight-talker and touting his achievements—and this, too, undercut the force of his opening statement.

Jonathan Bernstein explains how the scandal hurts Christie’s presidential chances:

I saw several pundits yesterday dismiss the idea that voters would still be focused on this scandal two years from now. They’re right — as far as it goes. … But what those pundits are missing is that the presidential campaign doesn’t begin in 2016 with the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. It began months ago, with the invisible primary.

That’s the competition to secure support from key party actors, including politicians, party-aligned interest groups, campaign and governing professionals, formal party officials and staff, activists, and the partisan press. In effect, it’s the efforts of these party actors to coordinate and compete over the leadership of the party.

The invisible primary helps to structure, and often determines, what happens in the nomination battle.

Douthat adds:

When I’ve written before about Christie’s very plausible path to victory in ’16, the bedrock under my analysis has been a sense that the institutional party — and not just the Wall Street money — sees him as by far its best bet to take back the White House, and will donate and organize and endorse accordingly. Now a traffic scandal, even one with this one’s juice, is not going to make the G.O.P.’s donor class suddenly fall in love with Rand Paul or Ted Cruz (or Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee). But it might make them look anew at Marco Rubio (who had a tough 2013, but just gave a good speech on poverty) or Scott Walker, or pine for the probably-not-gonna-do-it Jeb Bush. This is the big danger for Christie in this scandal, the shadow lapping at his ambitions: Not that Iowans or South Carolinians decide they can’t trust him (they probably aren’t paying attention), or that conservative activists sharpen their knives for him (they were doing that anyway) but that his party’s machers no longer see him as far and away the strongest horse.

Kleiman asks why Christie hasn’t spoken to Kelly:

Chris Christie, former prosecutor, wants to know what’s going on, but he’s so offended by having been lied to that he doesn’t call Kelly on the carpet and say, “OK, Bridget. You screwed up big time. Your job is on the line. Who the $#%* told you to pull this stupid %$#*ing stunt? Tell me the truth, tell me all the truth, tell me the truth right now, or you’re dead to me from this minute.” Srsly? Either he didn’t want to know what she would tell him, or he knew already and didn’t want to hear it.

MacGillis wonders who will speak out:

Will the scorned aides seek payback? Christie is generally known for his loyalty to his closest aides and confidantes, and the favor is mutual. That is why no one had any doubts that Baroni, say, would end up in a nice spot after stepping down from his $290,000 gig at the Port Authority. But so dire is Christie’s current spot that he went a bit heavy on the condemnations of his implicated team members, repeatedly lacing Kelly for “lying” to him and, remarkably, disputing the notion that he and Wildstein were high school pals by all but declaring Wildstein a teenaged loser—whereas Christie, he reminded reporters, was “class president,” Wildstein “didn’t travel in the same circles.” Would you like to add anything, David?

Allahpundit smells something fishy:

I find it hard to believe that Bridget Kelly is the mastermind of a revenge operation that extended to Christie appointees in the inner circle and at the Port Authority, especially in the middle of a reelection campaign. Even if Kelly wanted to punish the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing her boss, it’s mind-boggling to think that various members of Team Christie would have played along knowing that exposure could have jeopardized his reelection bid and presidential chances. It’s one thing for the candidate himself to be that reckless; it’s his life, after all. It’s another thing for subordinates to do it to their superior. That being so, how likely is it that Kelly, Stepien, and Wildstein would have instigated this retribution without any of them so much as mentioning it to him? They’ve briefed him on this before, at length, and no one said anything? Ever?

My take here.

Face Of The Day

Emails From Gov. Christie Aide Bridget Anne Kelly Tied To Ft. Lee Bridge Traffic Scandal

Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly stands at the scene of a boardwalk fire in Seaside Heights, New Jersey on September 12, 2013. According to reports on January 8, 2014, Kelly is accused of giving a signal to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey about two weeks before two lanes of the George Washington Bridge, allegedly as punishment for the Fort Lee, New Jersey mayor not endorsing the Governor during the election. By Phil Stilton/Getty Images.