Monday, January 13, 2014

Is Chris Christie's Political Career Over? Should We Really Want It to Be?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

The George Washington Bridge-related scandal (I refuse to call it "Bridgegate") that has engulfed the administration of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie reached a crescendo last week, and the path forward most likely involves ongoing investigations, along with occasional dribs and drabs of information that will be damaging but not lethal to Christie's governorship.  Unless something big happens that leads to outright impeachment or resignation (not at all a remote possibility), he will continue to serve as governor of the Garden State.  The question going forward will be the one that I (along with plenty of other commentators) addressed last week: How will this affect Republican presidential politics leading up to 2016?

Normally, I would be among those people who think that it is ridiculous to talk about the next election now, given that we are only one year into President Obama's second term.  John Oliver, during his time filling in for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show last summer, repeatedly pleaded for a respite from the Permanent Presidential Campaign.  In general, that desire is completely reasonable.

The Christie scandal, however, is both highly unusual and potentially transformative regarding the dynamics of the fight for the Republican nomination.  Some news stories end up being fleeting.  Even big events, like the poorly managed roll-out of healthcare.gov, will -- despite Republican attempts to keep it alive -- almost surely fade quickly from people's minds and end up having little or no effect on outcomes in the 2014 midterm elections, much less the next general election.  Christie's bridge scandal, on the other hand, could permanently alter the landscape.

On Friday, therefore, I indulged myself by offering a few thoughts on where this all might lead.  Now that I have digested some very good comments from our readers, and after an off-list discussion with Professor Dorf, my thinking has developed further.  I still believe that Christie is a dead man walking (at least as a presidential contender, and maybe as a public figure), but that is by no means certain.  And if the governor is done, that might not even be a good thing for liberals like me.  We might want Christie to be resurrected (pun intended).  I am not saying that we definitely should cheer on his return, but it is at least a possibility that the world will end up worse off because of Christie's demise.

The threshold issue remains whether the events that climaxed last week have permanently ended Christie's presidential possibilities.  In my post on Friday, I suggested that they have.  In particular, I noted that Christie's opponents will have no problem using the scandal against him.  Not that any of his likely opponents have any shame, but none of them would even need to be hypocritical to attack Christie on this issue.  He is guilty either of planning to use governmental power to harm people, or of presiding over a group of aides who used governmental power to harm people.  This is truly bipartisan in its awfulness.  Conservatives hate government all the time, and liberals hate when politicians make government look bad.

Even so, as one commenter noted, it is not hard to imagine Christie emerging from this with a new credibility among his party's base.  What has been holding Christie back among the ultra-conservative faithful is that he has actually tried to make government work.  Embracing President Obama after Hurricane Sandy was a huge deal (especially because it happened only weeks before the 2012 election), and Christie's "brand" to this point has been that he can be sold as an electable moderate-conservative.  He is not really moderate, unless one views being to the left of Rand Paul as moderation, but that is not the point.  Christie was viewed with suspicion by the Tea Partiers.

As our commenter noted, however, the very nastiness of the bridge scandal could breathe credibility into Christie's attempts to appeal to that base.  Remember, after all, that these are the people who shouted "Let 'em die!" when a candidate was asked what should happen to uninsured people who show up at a hospital with a life-threatening illness.  (Yes, the 2012 Republican primaries were an entertaining horror show.)  Harming weak people -- being a bully -- is not only OK with this group, but it is what they admire most.  The question is whether these non-Northeastern voters would excuse Christie for harming regular people, because the people who were harmed are likely not to be Tea Partiers.  "Sure, I'd be pissed if he messed up my commute, but who cares about a buncha Blue State voters!"

Even if Christie could parlay the scandal into a plus with the people who admire autocrats, however, he might have already ruined himself in their eyes by apologizing (and apologizing and apologizing) in last week's operatic press conference.  He would, therefore, have to be able to convince the pro-bully base not only that they can trust him only to harm the kind of weak people that they would like to harm, but also that he was merely being opportunistic in apologizing for doing so.  That, again, is difficult, but hardly impossible.

Moreover, the evidence continues to accumulate that the Republicans' primary voters are truly a nasty lot.  The ongoing efforts by House Republicans to cut food stamps, to end unemployment benefits, and so on, have opened a lot of people's eyes regarding the party's priorities.  Depending on how one measures it, the "takers" so reviled on the right might literally add up to "the 99%."  Certainly, it is at least 47%.

There are, moreover, two recent examples of Republican presidential aspirants who seemed dead in the water, only to find new life.  In 2008, John McCain was polling in the low single digits, only months after having been the presumptive nominee.  He then recovered, winning the nomination rather easily.  In 2012, Newt Gingrich died two political deaths, when the first one should have been more than enough to finish him off.

The Gingrich comparison is an interesting one.  During his few days as the front-runner in late 2011, I asked here on Dorf on Law: "Will Americans Voters Elect an Unbearably Pompous President?"  Although I believe that the comparison between Christie and Rudolf Giuliani (which I discussed in last Friday's post) is most apt, the Christie-Gingrich similarities are hard to ignore.  Gingrich has an undeserved reputation for having "ideas," which is not Christie's supposed strength, but both of them are condescending, nasty, and dismissive of their detractors (and even of people who simply ask them to explain themselves).  If anything, Christie has perfected Gingrich's snarling pose.

Of course, Gingrich's comeback in 2012 was not at all a matter of having found a way to be more appealing to voters.  He simply found a billionaire to back him, and he managed to hang on in the primaries a few weeks longer than otherwise would have been possible.  And even then, he lost badly.  Could Christie find a billionaire of his own?  Maybe.

I do not have anything to say about the McCain comeback in 2008, except that it proves how quickly the unthinkable becomes the obvious in politics.  For that reason, I can certainly imagine Christie's public image morphing multiple times over the next two years, ending in a place where he is once again a plausible candidate for President.  Based on everything that I have written above, I do not view such an outcome as at all likely.  I do, however, readily admit that it is not impossible.

From the standpoint of liberals and Democrats, is Christie's near-certain political demise good news or bad news?  Before the scandal broke, absurdly-early polling had shown Christie to be in a dead heat with Hillary Clinton.  Christie's image as the moderate, electable candidate was, in fact, what drove his aides to push so hard on New Jersey Democrats to endorse him.  He's bipartisan!

The large segment of the punditocracy that believes in "centrism" abhors a vacuum.  If there is no actual moderate out there, they will invent one.  Christie himself is the result of that very dynamic.  If Christie goes, to whom would the faux-centrists turn?  Professor Dorf reminded me that Paul Ryan -- PAUL freakin' RYAN!! -- could use last month's budget deal as a way to convince the Bill Kellers and Thomas Friedmans of the world that he is their guy.  That is to say, to convince them that he is the one about whom they can sagely say: "We disagree with him about everything, but you have to admit that he's reasonable.  And liberals have to accept reality and try to work with this pragmatic compromiser."  That Ryan is already wrongly viewed as a serious wonk would only enhance his appeal to be the guy who replaces Christie as the false moderate.

We thus could find a Republican field in which every candidate is as conservative as the next, but Ryan could be the designated "reasonable conservative."  Weird, but not unprecedented.  Would it, therefore, actually be better to have Christie still in there, given that he has actually shown that he is not a complete right-wing ideologue?  Unlike Mitt Romney, who sold out whatever moderate views he had in pursuit of the presidency, Christie is stubborn enough that he probably would not cave to the will of the craziest people in his party.

Ryan and the other potential false moderates (Bobby Jindal comes to mind) really are pretty much the same as the other extremists in their party.  They might differ on odd things like enthusiasm for the gold standard, but otherwise they are all in line with the hard-core conservative agenda.  (As others have noted, this is not the "Tea Party agenda," but truly the Republican agenda.  The intramural differences really are about tactics, not goals.)

It is probably true that a Democrat would have an easier time against a non-Christie candidate, because it would be easy in principle to demonstrate the falseness of the moderation of such a non-Christie Republican.  That, however, merely raises the age-old question about such choices.  Is the non-zero probability of a crazy extremist winning so scary that it would be better to root for a very conservative, more electable "pragmatist"?

The people who cheered on Ronald Reagan in the 1980 primaries against George H.W. Bush thought that Reagan could not possibly win, and that his nomination guaranteed Jimmy Carter's reelection.  At this point, it seems fair to imagine that any of the potential Republican candidates could actually win.  I am not prepared to say that we should hope for Christie to make a comeback.  I am, however, unwilling to say with any certainty that the net result of his disappearance would be good for the world.