Well, well, well, today is an interesting day: it’s Chris Christie’s re-inauguration day. It was just two weeks ago, a little more, that this was going to be a day of shimmering triumph. I was just reading this CNN dispatch, from January 6, that talks about how the governor is planning on starting his day at a black church (whose reverend presided over Whitney Houston’s funeral) and ending it at Ellis Island. There’s nary a word in it about bridges and subpoenas.
Back then, today was supposed to be the official beginning of the slow and ineluctable ascent to the White House. He didn’t have to do or prove anything in this putative second term. Lose a little weight, maybe. But otherwise, he was on the glide path to the GOP nomination, not that Rand Paul and others wouldn’t have something to say about it, but the party establishment and most of the big money all set to gather around Christie and make sure that he didn’t have to spend too much time crossing swords with the crazies.
Now? Things are a little different, aren’t they? I trust you’re enjoying the Christie panic among Republican establishment types as much as I am. That New York Times story on Sunday, with big boosters like Home Depot’s Kenneth Langone fretting publicly that he really must surround himself with better people (so it’s their fault!), combined with the cable damage-control efforts by the likes of Rudy Giuliani, really shows the extent to which the party big shots have been counting on Christie to save them.
They know deep down that there isn’t a single other figure in their party who can come within yodeling distance of 270 electoral votes. Certainly not against Hillary Clinton. Against her, the rest of them max out at around 180, which would constitute the biggest wipeout since Bill Clinton thumped Bob Dole in 1996 (379-159). Imagine Republicans waking up on Wednesday, November 9, 2016 and reading: “Not in 20 years—in fact not since her husband trounced Bob Dole in his anti-climatic reelection campaign—has a Democrat won so lopsided a victory.”
Of course Clinton might not run, and that changes the math. But if you’re a Republican, you have to assume she will. The Seahawks aren’t watching film thinking that Peyton Manning is going to be benched on Feb. 2. And Republicans know that without their man Chris, they’re finished. (I suppose there’s a Jeb Bush contingent, which pointedly does not include his mother, but recent polls show Jeb trailing Hillary almost as much as the others.) Eight more years in the wilderness.
The fact that the GOP establishment needs to come face-to-face with is that they have no one to blame for this but themselves. They’ve reached the point where they almost have to have a Northeasterner like Christie to run for president, just as they had to settle for Romney last time. They’ve let their party go so far off the deep end that practically no Republican officeholder from any other region of the country could appeal to enough moderates in enough purple and blue states to win back the territory the party ceded to the Democrats in the last two elections.
Remember: the Republicans come into the next presidential election with 206 reliable electoral votes from states their nominees have won at least four of the last six elections. The Democrats’ corresponding number is 257 (just 13 shy of the victory threshold). These tallies leave five states on the table: Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada. And I’m not even sure if, with Clinton in the race, if the last three could even be called purple anymore. The Republicans have a lot of territory to reclaim.
They were, and I suppose still are, hoping that Christie could win it back for two reasons. First, and more obviously, he’d give them back the White House. But second, a Christie presidential win could paper over the profound and disturbing problems with today’s GOP. This is a party deeply in need of an internal thrashing of heads to pull it out of loony-land and back toward the center. Republican grandees know this, of course, but they’d much rather not have to go through this civil war. Indeed, the war could be cleansing enough that the party splits into two. Only Christie can save them from that possibility. The party would just become whatever Christie wanted it to be, and the Big Conversations could all be shelved.
Pretty high stakes. So the establishment isn’t going to give up on Christie easily. And of course he can enjoy the benefit in these next weeks and months of becoming a more sympathetic figure to the hard right than he’s ever been, because all he has to do to please that crowd is carry on about how the East Coast liberal media are trying to do him in. And it may just work.
But ultimately, facts are facts. And if the facts finish him off, and the GOP is stuck with Cruz-Rubio-Paul, or even a right-wing governor like Scott Walker, the establishment will be reaping what it’s spent the Obama years sowing: a party that cares more about feeding its base’s fever-dreams than being nationally electable. And that’s where things stand, as Christie begins a term that there’s a sporting chance he may not even be able to finish.