Who knows how the “Bridgegate” scandal is going to work out? Maybe Chris Christie will turn out to be a blast from the Nixonian past and his career is already circling the drain. Perhaps his effort to straddle wounded victimhood and brave responsibility will work out and staunch the bleeding.
The one thing we do know, however, is that Christie’s already suffered enough high-profile damage that it’s very unlikely he will offer Republicans in 2016 the devilish temptation of invincible electability. And that’s a real problem for those in and around the Republican Party who are determined to save the GOP from itself.
An awful lot of psychic energy had been invested in the New Jersey Governor as someone whose base-pleasing ability to browbeat public employees offset his ideological heresies sufficiently to make the fact that he’s running ahead of Hillary Clinton in some polls absolutely mesmerizing. We may have already seen the last of that.
The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza is among the very few still thinking of Christie as a 2016 frontrunner. But even he says it’s in no small part because of “the lack of an obvious challenger to his dominance.”
So the ‘16 cupboard is suddenly looking a tad bare for the Republican Establishment. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) briefly auditioned for the role of Mr. Electable last year until his comprehensive immigration bill crashed on the shoals of conservative hostility and he began frantically looking for redemption on the right by leaping onto every quixotic Tea Party crusade in sight.
His one-time Florida mentor former Gov. Jeb Bush still gets some aged hearts beating quickly, but it’s increasingly hard to imagine him working the Pizza Ranch circuit in Iowa for two years to convince activists he’s not a Judas like his father and brother, before convincing a general electorate that they need a third Bush presidency.
And if Kasich Fever seizing rank-and-file Republicans seemed unlikely before the Ohio governor fought GOP legislators to expand Medicaid, it seems like a really bad bet to break out now.
To be sure, there are plenty of what interesting — if not especially pretty — faces left in the potential Republican primary field, but nobody who’s going to be able to give the Republican Party a makeover, unless you think the party’s main problem is that it needs the ferocity of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) or the paleoconservatism of Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). But at this point the prospects of a GOP presidential victory rely entirely on the ability to command a popular majority that won’t be inflated by candidate charisma or the illusion of newfound “moderation.”
That’s always possible, of course. And if, as seems likely, Republicans do well this year with a shrunken midterm electorate they will probably go into the next cycle as mistakenly confident as they were when Barack Obama was doomed to a one-term presidency.
But that’s all the more reason they would be less prone than they might be otherwise to confine “electability” to someone like Christie or anyone else who’s flunked ideological litmus tests.
The continuing calculus for Republican elites is the so-called “Buckley Rule:” nominate the most conservative candidate who is “viable” (which meant “creditable” — not necessarily “electable”). This means moderates must meet a much higher standard of “viability” than “true conservatives” (after all, Barry Goldwater was the product of the the original Buckley Rule). And beyond that, at the grassroots level, where Democrats are alternatively viewed as invincible thugs who can steal any election, or as obvious frauds and failures a “center-right nation” will smite, fine calculations of “viability” or “electability” just aren’t as powerful unless they involve very big poll numbers and visions of a landslide.
It’s those very big numbers that Christie will soon lack. Nobody’s in line to inherit them. Hard-core conservatives will go into 2016 convinced more than ever that nominating “RINOs” the previous two presidential elections snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Ideological warriors like Paul and Cruz and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) will look a lot better than their 2012 predecessors Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and businessman Herman Cain and former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) and Texas GOP Gov. Perry (and the last two may be back to reinforce the comparisons). The Republican Establishment, denied their own invincible champion, may soon start picking and choosing from the true conservative ranks in fear of being denied influence over the ticket and the party.
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.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.