Chris Christie’s perpetual “town hall meeting” tour across New Jersey subjects the governor to at least a modicum of unscripted public scrutiny. Though held lately on weekday mornings or afternoons in suburban areas, dissension could theoretically erupt without warning at these events, notwithstanding the legions of State Police, municipal police, plainclothes security personnel, and Christie staffers on hand to promote order. Setting the tone of unpredictability is the governor himself, who famously advises prospective questioners that any topic is fair game, and that if necessary he won’t hesitate to put loudmouths, know-it-alls, smart alecks, etc., in their respective places.
Amidst such anticipation, no citizen afforded the opportunity to directly query Christie at recent meetings has asked him any variation of “Will you or won’t you” (run for president). This must bewilder the national political media, as journalists these days lob some variant of The Question at Christie whenever circumstances permit.
Similarly bewildering to them must be how little interest town hall questioners have evinced in what is almost certainly the most famous U.S. political scandal ever to arise as a result of dubious traffic lane closures: “Bridgegate.” Each development in this saga continues to receive copious media coverage, while interest among the general public appears rather less than ardent. Nonjournalists who show up to town hall meetings and get called upon by the governor largely demonstrate concern with the familiar slate of parochial issues: flood preparedness, public employee compensation, and property taxes.
When at an April 24 town hall—after over an hour of placid Q&A mostly related to Superstorm Sandy recovery issues—Point Pleasant Borough resident Len Ludovico finally did pose a question about Bridgegate, journalists suddenly rustled into action and surrounded the 71-year-old. Presenting himself as a staunch Christie supporter in search of effective rebuttals to deploy when friends and family accuse the Governor of wrongdoing, Mr. Ludovico told me it had never even occurred to him that the question could engender such frenzy. But there he was after the town hall meeting, conferring with CNN personnel and displaying a photo of himself posing with the governor at a recent Princeton University football game.
Even if these meetings are demographically unrepresentative of New Jersey, the apparent discrepancy in priorities between political media and the general public is instructive. Consider the narrative propagated by political media since January 2014, when the release of salacious emails triggered national media attention to Bridgegate. The theory went that any potential Christie presidential campaign had been rendered “toast.” Four months later, the vigorous certitude once shown in those heady initial post-scandal days has ebbed—perhaps owing to a steady stream of headlines like this one, from CBS News on April 30: “Could strong fundraising be Chris Christie’s road to redemption?”
Christie’s entrenched support among monied elites affiliated with the Republican Party establishment ought to have been better highlighted all along in the waves of calamitous Bridgegate analyses. The scandal obscured the fact that by January 2014, powerbrokering elements of the party had already exalted Christie for upwards of three years, and there was never good reason to believe this support would totally evaporate as a result of Bridgegate.
For an especially vivid reminder of the depth of Christie’s establishment backing, one need only think back to the night of September 27, 2011, when the governor addressed the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. During the Q&A, a woman rose to beg that Christie seek the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. “Your country needs you,” she pleaded. Then-frontrunner Mitt Romney likely felt at least a tinge of unease when this tearful entreaty led to a thunderous standing ovation. What could constitute a symbolic show of support from GOP establishment actors if not that (melodramatic) episode?
Those predicting Christie’s downfall also would have done well to be more cognizant of Christie’s interrupted record fundraising totals as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, compiled even while Bridgegate mania raged. The role of RGA Chairman affords Christie the ongoing opportunity to cultivate relationships with party financiers across the country. Bloomberg reported on April 9 that Christie had already “generated a record $23.5 million in the first three months of .”
In March 2014, “he attended a fundraiser for Gov. Rick Snyder in Grand Rapids, Michigan,” Bloomberg continued. “During the event, billionaire Richard DeVos, founder of Amway Corp. in Ada, Michigan, and owner of the National Basketball League’s Orlando Magic in Florida, expressed support for a Christie 2016 run, according to a person in the room not authorized to speak to the media.”
Scandal be damned, Christie was designated “Corporate America’s Candidate” by Fortune magazine in January. He’d been enjoined to run by quintessentially establishment GOP figures ranging from Roger Ailes to Mitt Romney to Henry Kissinger. He had won reelection in New Jersey by 22 points. His solid backing among GOP donorists in the New York City metropolitan area—perhaps colloquially termed the ‘Giuliani-sphere’—could by itself bankroll a serious 2016 primary campaign.
Christie is not any kind of shoo-in for the nomination, nor is he even a front-runner—but proclamations of his demise in early 2014 were manifestly premature, and should have been recognized as such at the time. Any presidential primary candidate has to be judged against a cast of other imperfect primary contenders, and the idea that Christie’s imperfections are so uniquely grave as to obviously outweigh those of, say, Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz, seems far-fetched. Indeed, “If the Bridgegate scandal irreparably shattered Chris Christie’s standing on the national political stage,” conceded CBS News on April 30, “someone forgot to tell the people who write the checks.”
A final irony is that, based just on what’s presently known about Bridgegate, its implications really ought to factor into voters’ assessment of Christie, but likely will not. The incident reflects poorly on Christie not merely due to the incidental malfeasance of direct subordinates, but because the management structure he personally instituted partly enabled the bad acts. Moreover, the core misdeed of Bridgegate was a capricious wielding of government power to the detriment of average citizens. But Republicans increasingly portray continued inquiries as a partisan nuisance, and by January 2016, the Bridgegate issue may well have receded into the background.
If 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney could overcome his championing of the precursor to Obamacare, and 2008 nominee John McCain could overcome his championing of granting citizenship to undocumented aliens, recent history suggests that to casually write off Christie’s fortunes as a result of Bridgegate would be a mistake. But then, political pundits are a class whose demonstrably disproven predictions are seldom penalized—and usually rewarded.