Is Chris Christie out of the running? This is the question everyone is asking. But it’s not the most important question. The most important question is a different and more subtle one: How, specifically and exactly, is Bridgegate hurting his presidential ambitions right now?
The way to answer this question is to begin by imagining a Christie to whom Bridgegate didn’t happen. He was overwhelmingly reelected. Half the Latino vote. Approval ratings near 70 percent. Media swooning. Speeches all over the country as head of the Republican Governors’ Association, with audiences treating him like the rock star he was instead of the potential felon he is.
You’ve thought of all that. But here’s what you may not have thought of. That Chris Christie could have spent the next six months meeting with every single big-money Republican in the country; every head of every important super PAC; every state chairman; and so on. He could have shown all of these people what the polling suggested—that he could beat Hillary Clinton. They all wouldn’t have backed him, of course. But a lot of them would have. Barring some strange development, he could have effectively ended the nomination fight before it even started.
Enter that stranger development, and poof! All gone. The Bridgegate Christie can’t do any of that stuff. He can still try. But with a federal investigation hanging over him, he’s not going to be able to lock money people down. Super PACs and state chairs aren’t going to touch him. He still might have to resign, or be impeached. There’s an off chance he could be...indicted!
So the race is on hold. And Christie, even if he is completely exonerated however many months from now, will still be hurt by it and have lost months of momentum.
So who, in the interim, gains momentum? That’s hard to say. Everyone seems to think Jeb Bush. But I don’t know. Bush has the liabilities everyone knows—his last name, mostly, and that fire-in-the-belly business. But he has some other ones as well. It’s been a while now since he was in office—eight years. That’s a pretty long time. Especially when, in that time, conservatism and the Republican Party have undergone the radical transformations they have. He did some things as governor that conservatives like, particularly on school choice and other education questions, and they must have seemed pioneering to people on the right at the time; but now, after everything’s shifted so far rightward? Plus, there’s just something about having been out of the game for that long that makes you less interesting.
Scott Walker may gain some speed. For one thing, he has to run for reelection this fall, which means he has to spend the next few months talking like a governor, not like a presidential candidate. He leads his potential Democratic opponents, but only by margins in the 47-42 range. That means, in a blue state, he can’t go around saying the crazy stuff that Republicans jockeying for presidential advantage are given to say. “He gets the big advantage, more than Bush, because he needs the race to start later,” says Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. So if Walker wins reelection, and Christie can’t string up commitments, then Walker may be looking strong by the end of the year.
Who else? Of the Tea Party Troika here inside the Beltway—Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul—it’s starting to look clearer and clearer as if Paul is the most serious one. He has his dad’s national network, and while that didn’t exactly win Pops a ton of votes, it’s an infrastructure to build on. Rubio blew it with immigration, and as for Cruz, I think even most Republicans see that that would be a kamikaze mission.
There are other governors besides Walker. Mike Pence of Indiana, Sam Brownback of Kansas. And don’t forget Rick Perry! And Mike Huckabee, too.
But honestly, who are these people, in national terms? Pence and Brownback are really right wing, and the charisma isn’t exactly shooting out of them. Maybe Perry will speak something more closely to resembling English now that he’s off the pain pills, but he’s way out there ideologically, too. Walker a little less so. But he’s dull. They couldn’t recall him that time because most apolitical people decided a man that boring couldn’t have done something so controversial.
Their problem, which I report to you with no sadness whatsoever, is that as the Republican Party has become more Southern and prairie and more and more right wing, it’s just quit producing plausible presidential candidates. Right-wing Texas may want someone like Rick Perry. Moderate America doesn’t. It’s telling in this regard what’s gone on in Jeb’s own Florida, a state that’s gone from Bush, who could conceivably win a national election under the right circumstances, to hard-right Rick Scott, who couldn’t win 200 Electoral Votes.
They were so lucky to have Christie. He was an anomaly in so many ways. He represents the GOP of about 25 years ago, when it was clearly the dominant electoral party, back when the Reagan Democrats were reliably voting Republican (a lot of them have switched back) and Reagan and G.H.W. Bush were winning states like New Jersey. He’s from the Northeast. He’s got that Reagan Democrat aura. Appeal outside of the usual GOP area codes. Ability to talk to moderates and sound persuasive and common-sensical. Most of all, he’s got the ability to go toe-to-toe with Hillary C.
The angels may come down and declare him innocent. But it doesn’t seem likely, and even if it does happen, he still won’t remotely be the candidate he was two months ago. He’s on the B-list now.