Chris Christie declared for President this week and 320 million Americans asked as if with a single breath, “Why? Why are you running, Chris?” Christie has fallen so far behind in the national polls that he’s now in the neighborhood of Trumpville: the notorious WSJ-NBC poll found last week that 55 percent of Republicans would not consider voting for Christie. And he lags even further behind in the money race. Christie waited to declare until the last day of the filing period, one assumes, precisely to avoid invidious comparisons not only with Jeb Bush, but with Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul, as well.
So why is Christie running? The short answer is that he has been preparing a campaign for three years and, with other options crowded out, he’s doing what comes naturally. Politicians tend to run for office even when the electorate has not been heard to beg for more. (In recent polls, Christie’s homestate approval rating has slumped to 30 percent.)
The settling wisdom of the commentariat is thus that Christie has no chance and is for that reason irrelevant, other than as a potentially dangerous man to party unity and electoral comity.
Maybe. But dangerous men can sometimes be useful men. With nothing to lose in this campaign, Christie seems to be returning to his roots as a straight-talking, in-your-face kind of guy. He may be willing to raise the tough questions and in the process force his rivals, possibly even Hillary Clinton, to give the tough answers. (I couldn’t help but notice that in his beautifully staged announcement on Tuesday, the first issue Christie raised was entitlements. That’s the sure sign of a candidate who knows he’s playing catch-up.) Let’s be grownups here. Some public figure, somewhere, will have to accost the fiscal realities of entitlements, Obamacare very much included. Maybe Christie will provide that invaluable public service.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, of course. I remember taking a trip to Trenton in late 2013 – only eighteen months ago. Christie had just cruised to a double-digit victory in his re-election campaign, running up eye-popping numbers (for a GOP candidate) among women, blacks and Hispanics. With his impressive record of reform in a blue state long controlled by a Democratic legislature, he was a formidable figure. So formidable, in fact, that it was the judgment, a unanimous judgment, of our delegation that we were looking at the next Republican nominee for President. While it may have been too early to label Christie the “prohibitive” favorite for 2016, it was not too early for his burgeoning candidacy to chill the ambitions of other GOP contenders, even those named Romney and Bush.
And then came Bridgegate, the episode in which three dirty tricksters close to the Christie campaign took revenge on a political opponent — it is alleged — by snarling traffic at the George Washington Bridge. Let me offer some perspective here. I worked in New York City for the better part of fifteen years and, like most of the other twenty million people in the metro area, I had frequent occasion to use that bridge. It is, after all, the principal artery leading from New Jersey and the mid-Atlantic states to the largest city in the nation. Over the course of those years, I was caught in a traffic jam – what? – fifty times? A hundred times? More?
Now, if you listened to reports of Bridgegate from your home in the real America — Waco or Fresno or Pocatello — you might think that a soul-trying terror had gripped the good people of northern Jersey. It might have seemed as if, arising in Miami one morning, OMG, you found the sidewalks covered with two inches of black ice. The back-up at the bridge, in truth, was no big tabloid deal. I would be willing to bet, in fact, that most of the motorists caught in Bridgegate had no idea that they had been pawns in a “massive abuse of power.” It was a traffic jam at the GW Bridge. It happens.
That’s not the way the Obama Justice Department saw it. The same people who had been unable to discern problems at the IRS, the VA, or elsewhere in the Federal government, leapt into action. Prosecutors and FBI agents raced to New Jersey, swarming both the Governor’s office and his campaign organization. The “investigation” consumed months of the Governor’s time, hijacked his agenda, cost millions of taxpayer dollars and splintered the political structure that Christie had been building for more than five years. While the Feds were never able to “implicate” Christie in the traffic jam, you could say that they got their man. Christie went from being a strong favorite for 2016 to a trailing underdog.
As we now know, at the very time that this house-to-house dragnet was underway in New Jersey, another 2016 candidate, Ms. Clinton, was directing seven- and eight-figure contributions to her private ventures from the foreign governments she was negotiating with as Secretary of State. Maximizing the incumbency, as she might have described it. (On those occasions when no suitable vehicle for foreign subventions could be identified, the Secretary’s husband would be hired to make “speeches” at egregiously above-market rates. Tip to bookers: Don’t bother with Bill Clinton. If you want $500,000 worth of speech, hire George Will.) Prosecutorial curiosity about what appeared to be a blatant case of monetizing public office for private gain has not to this date been aroused.
I bring up these parallel stories, Christie’s and Clinton’s, not to beat the dead horse about life being unfair. It is, indeed. The point here is that when government bureaucracy becomes politicized – as it has been from one end of Obama’s Administration to the other – it is bad for both parties, for all Americans, and for democracy itself. Life is unfair enough without bills of attainder against dissenting citizens.
How will Christie do, now that he’s jumped into the race? I don’t know, but we’ll find out soon. He will have to make an all-or-nothing bet on New Hampshire. He’s not likely to survive that primary, but if he does, Jeb Bush will have to start looking over his shoulder for the big fellow from New Jersey.
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