Yep, He’s Toast

Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie celebrates his election victory in Asbury Park, N.J., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, after defeating Democratic challenger Barbara Buono. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
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Early last week I started writing a piece about how Christie was already toast as a 2016 candidate; most people just didn’t realize it yet. I set it aside because I couldn’t get the writing quite right (a perk of being your own boss and editor). Yesterday I thought: this piece is going to get easier and easier to write the longer I let it sit! But of course the point of writing it also diminishes. Because people are starting to get that he’s done. (In other words, I missed my chance.)

Now we have Team Christie’s blistering retort to David Wildstein, published originally through Politico’s Mike Allen (errr, ‘leaked’, sorry). It only drives home the point more clearly: as a 2016 presidential candidate, he’s done.

As I noted in my failed piece, half the story is that Christie was already reasonably well baked before any of this BridgeGate thing even happened. He’s the classic GOP establishment great white hope, the darling of extra-ideological professional Republicans and money types, especially on the coasts and major cities. Also of some non-Tea Partyish GOP types and a slice of right-leaning independents. Perhaps a good nominee, perhaps a good president. Sort of like former President Sam Nunn. But a very tough proposition getting nominated – like President Giuliani, who he profoundly resembles in the context of Republican politics.

A certain kind of Republican (who the party is not at all based on) loves him. And a large number of Republicans love the ‘kicking the whiner, union, pick your girly-man bad guy’ swagger. But it’s an admiration that doesn’t withstand a look at the actual policy positions, record or deeply northeastern, actually tristate tone.

So, Christie was never anywhere near being a frontrunner as people believed. And in saying he’s toast, I say this on the assumption that he’s innocent. Even with all that, he’s done. Here’s why.

Start with a good year of very public investigations into BridgeGate, which will put on display for the whole country New Jersey’s really sleazy, bossed up politics, which to be clear is that way on a bipartisan basis. As someone trying to cue up a presidential run, it’s the death of a thousand cuts.

Then you have the immediate issue that Team Christie’s argument, not the charge but their argument, their defense is that a group of close Christie insiders did this petty, vindictive, sleazy thing. Christie just didn’t know about it.

That’s a tough sell against the quality of your judgment and your qualities as a leader. Again, even if he’s totally innocent.

But finally, look at what we have today: Christie either declaring or more like joining war with David Wildstein, something that looks to be no-holds-barred, nasty and to the (political or legal) death. Team Christie is arguing that Wildstein is a lifetime sleaze and liar who would do or so anything to save his own hide (all quite possibly true) … who Christie appointed to a position of great responsibility at the Port Authority.

Who did this with a key Christie insider.

Again, that’s Christie’s defense, not the accusation.

But here’s the killer for Christie. The 2016 primary is already underway, lining up political professionals, money people, power brokers in key states. That’s all happening now and it will continue through this year. Next year, the actual campaign starts. But a lot will have happened by then.

So think about this. Christie’s standing with the public has already taken a huge hit because of this. Before the scandal broke, Christie’s national favorability number was 33% positive, 17% negative. Not bad and still with most of the public not having a clear opinion. By the end of January, it was 22% to 29%. So he’s net negative with the national public. And it’s much easier to imagine that number getting worse over the next year than better.

It’s true that a roughly half the public still has no opinion one way or another. But that’s actually bad, not good for Christie. Because it’s in the context of this investigation that a lot of people are getting introduced to him. So again, really, really not good.

So Christie has to recruit a campaign (the pros, the money people, the powerbrokers) as someone with net negative national standing and quite likely with polls that are getting worse over the course of the year.

But even that’s actually not the worst of it. He has to build that campaign, build and consolidate that national standing, while at any moment along the way, a piece of evidence or accuser might surface that makes him totally radioactive politically and may even force him to resign as governor.

Now, to be clear, maybe Christie’s innocent. And if he’s innocent he knows that there can’t be any smoking gun. Perhaps some of his closest associates have some way besides trust of having equal certainty. Maybe.

But none of the other people Christie has to court can. So for them, it’s a clear and real risk that will probably hang over the prospect of a Christie presidential candidacy through 2014 and perhaps beyond.

Put it all together: the horrible press, the dipping polls, the political sword of damocles people have to sign on hoping won’t fall and the inherent difficulties of getting a tonally northeastern, relative moderate through the GOP primary process, it’s just too heavy a lift. It won’t happen. And that’s all assuming he’s either innocent or that smoking gun evidence never comes out.

Like I said, he’s toast.

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