Chris Christie: Still in Your Face
Chris Christie: Still in Your Face

by Jules Witcover

As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie plays the victim in the George Washington Bridge scandal, betrayed as he puts it by underlings in his office, much political crepe is being draped around his broad shoulders. But it doesn't necessarily have to be a shroud over his national ambitions.

Surviving advisers say the governor will be pressing on, as recently elected chairman of the Republican Governors Association, with a six-state fund-raising and candidate-boosting tour in the Northeast, South and Rockies, focusing on party-building and his personal appeal as a straight-talker.

The old politician's axiom, that it doesn't matter what you write about me as long as you spell my name right, may be stretched to the extreme in this instance. But the Christie saga has clearly been extended beyond his role as Barack Obama's best friend during the 2012 Hurricane Sandy devastation of the Jersey Shore.

The Democratic president gave him very visible support for the recovery effort in the closing days of the 2012 presidential campaign in which Christie was a conspicuous Mitt Romney supporter. Christie's fulsome appreciation may have dismayed the Romney camp, but he won praise for casting partisanship aside in the interest of his state.

The Republican Party having suffered a painful defeat in that election, its tea party constituency is now clamoring for change, challenging the old establishment of which Christie has been a somewhat more moderate member. With GOP luminaries of the right led by the likes of the rabblerousing Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who other than the tough guy from Jersey is better positioned, by policies and temperament, to take them on?

In 2012, standard-bearer Romney served up a soft and at times fawning leadership and lost. His nice-guy gentility often robbed him of the ferocity required in a partisan campaign. Christie's blunt in-your-face style, applied to the tea partyers in the 2016 primaries, would be a welcome change to many in the party establishment.

While the conveniently labeled Trafficgate will cling to him for now, it should fade somewhat, just as the earlier expressed concern that the governor's Taft-like avoirdupois has seemed to become less of a barrier to his presidential ambitions.

Christie's rise in New Jersey politics as a conservative in a markedly liberal-voting state, and his overwhelming re-election last November, assured him a national prominence well before that vindictive traffic jam on the Jersey side of the bridge, allegedly cooked up for political reasons by eager-to-please aides.

His ability to survive it all, of course, depends on whether his hard-to-believe assertions that he not only had nothing to do with the fiasco but knew nothing about it is indeed even halfway believed. Much bigger whoppers have been told by major political figures and they have survived. Who can forget Bill Clinton's "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky"?

The chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association in the past has been largely an honorific post, as is the head of the comparable Democratic organization. But the fact that the GOP holds the governorship in 29 states assures Christie of welcome mats across the country.

There is growing speculation that the party may turn to a state chief executive for the 2016 presidential nomination. No prominent senior national politician is around who can claim, in the Republican tradition, that it is "my turn'" as it was for Bob Dole in 1976 and John McCain in 2008.

Christie as well as others in the next nine months will have the opportunity to boost their party, and their own support, by raising money and campaigning for GOP candidates in November in hopes of winning Republican control of Congress during Obama's last two years in office.

Other Republican hopefuls being mentioned also have hurdles to overcome, or may develop them en route to 2016. Rep. Paul Ryan lost for vice president in 2012; Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have tea party ties; even former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has the family record, in bad odor after his brother's unpopular wars. The old Henny Youngman vaudeville routine still applies in politics: "How's your wife?" "Compared to what?"




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Chris Christie: Still in Your Face