The political fallout of “Bridgegate” may not be entirely clear just yet – but the lesson it holds for Republicans looking for a 2016 presidential candidate should be. Don’t fall in love too early. Nobody should be rushing to pick a 2016 presidential nominee two years before the first primaries.
One of the iron laws of politics is that sooner or later, everybody gets a turn inside the pinata. For Chris Christie, who enjoyed an unusually good 2013 while touting a brand of moderate Republicanism that irks both liberals and conservatives, the past month has involved taking a lot of whacks. The party started with the revelation in early January of emails showing that his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, conspired with his appointees to the Port Authority, under David Wildstein, to exacerbate Fort Lee, New Jersey’s chronic traffic problems by closing a lane leading onto the George Washington Bridge, apparently in retaliation for the Mayor of Fort Lee backing Barbara Buono, Christie’s hapless and overmatched 2013 opponent.
Lots of people on the Left and Right have been eager to bury Christie, but as of now, their obituaries still seem premature. Any candidate who comes to the presidential race, especially a candidate with any sort of executive experience, is going to have some dents – some bad appointments and associations, some things that didn’t work or didn’t happen as promised. And Christie is still a highly charismatic guy and a prolific fundraiser, and few of his potential rivals for the support of moderates in the GOP primaries have given much sign that they intend to run.
If the end result of Bridgegate is that a handful of Christie’s appointees misbehaved, it may not be a major obstacle to being a presidential nominee. On the other hand, if credible evidence surfaces (as Wildstein has threatened in a letter laced with lawyerly vagueness and demands for a payoff) tying Christie directly to the decision to create a traffic snarl as a form of petty political vindictiveness during a blowout election campaign, he’ll have his hands full just staying in office. The middle ground possibility – that Christie escapes being tied to the scandal personally, but it hamstrings his second term and gets painted as some sort of pattern – is perhaps the worst possibility for people considering backing Christie nationally, as it leaves him wounded but not fatally so.
The scandal is damaging to Christie in a couple of ways. The innocent explanation, that this was an unusual event resulting from a handful of ‘bad apples,’ still calls into question his management of personnel, a problem for a candidate running mainly on being an honest, competent executive who gets stuff done. And aside from its pure pettiness and how unnecessary the whole thing was (Buono was even more doomed than George McGovern in 1972), the use of government power to punish political enemies is especially problematic in a Republican primary because it’s precisely how Obama and the Clintons operate and have for years. And with the general electorate as well: Democrats are supposed to stand for giving particular people and groups stuff they want, so voters tend to forgive them – up to a point – when they hand out goodies to friends and punish foes. Whereas the point of electing Republicans is to stand up for the general interest – such as the interest in limiting runaway government spending and regulation – so voters tend to be harsher towards Republicans who act as if they were hired to give particular people and groups stuff they want.
But even if the Bridge flap proves a minor bump in the road for Christie’s national ambitions, it nonetheless reminds us that Christie is not only not the inevitable 2016 Republican nominee, he might not even make it as far as the Iowa Caucuses. And that perception itself can become self-fulfilling: it emboldens other candidates to jump in the race, as they might not if Christie looked like a juggernaut. It was Mitt Romney’s money machine that played a major role in discouraging people like Christie and Paul Ryan from mounting bids in 2012, and caused Romney’s major rival in the center-right of the party (Tim Pawlenty) to bet too heavily on the Iowa Straw Poll.
However things work out for Christie, a lot can still happen to him as well as to other Republicans between now and the primaries. As we’ve been seeing, even a guy who has been fairly well-vetted by the hostile New York, Philly and Jersey media still hasn’t seen the kind of scrutiny that wilts national candidates. Hopping on the Christie bandwagon, much less trying to clear the field for him (or any other GOP candidate) at this early stage would be madness. Unlike the Democrats, whose bench behind Hillary Clinton is frighteningly sparse (and who can be confident that Hillary has been so drenched in scandal over the years without collapsing that nothing new could come out that would sink her), Republicans right now have a deep stable of talented, plausible presidential contenders; the wise move is to sit back and make them prove their case before putting a ring on it. Personally, my top choices remain Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker, but I’m more than happy to see them and other contenders put to the test of making the sale.
That’s not just prudence in avoiding a shotgun wedding with a candidate who ends up fatally flawed. It’s also important that the party have a real debate on the issues – and a real debate on the issues can only happen if you have more than one plausible candidate. We’ve grown accustomed, the past two election cycles, to a demolition-derby approach to GOP primaries, in which the candidates compete to paint their opponents as unelectable and/or fatally compromised. That’s politics, and we’ll see some of the same in 2016, but if we have more than one plausible nominee, it becomes possible to actually get the voters to look at competing policy proposals and competing visions of what the party stands for. That process is how you get, not just a compelling candidate, but a compelling message, the kind of clear rationale for governing that neither Mitt Romney nor John McCain was ever really able to articulate.
The list of issues on which it’s possible to picture the party going in more than one direction is a long one:
-Whether Obamacare should be replaced with a new comprehensive scheme that keeps some of its elements, or scrapped in favor of a far less ambitious and decentralized approach.
-Whether entitlements require fundamental reform or simply fixes to make them less immediately fiscally insolvent.
-Whether to alter the hybrid federal/state structure of Medicaid.
-Whether America should play a leading role worldwide in promoting democracy, nation-building in failed states, and stopping dictators from abusing their people and their neighbors, or pursue a less ambitious role in the world.
-Whether or not we should increase legal immigration and whether or not, and on what conditions, we should allow illegal aliens to remain legally in the U.S.
-Whether to roll back NSA surveillance on libertarian grounds or preserve it on security grounds.
-Whether to attempt fundamental reform of the tax code or simply tinker with existing rates.
-Whether to take the party in a direction that is more confrontational with big business and finance.
-Whether to use the levers of federal power to impose conservative or neoliberal solutions to education and social issues or let go of federal control.
-Whether to roll back federal laws against marijuana.
-Whether to use executive orders in domestic policy (as Obama has) or simply repeal Obama’s and restore the use of such orders to their traditional role.
These are just a few examples, and there are others, on which there is a sufficient constituency within the GOP and the conservative movement to go in more than one direction, make more than one different choice. We can answer those questions, rather than simply defaulting to what our nominee wants, if we make the candidates compete for our votes. And we can do that only if the party hasn’t settled on a coronation of one candidate two years before the primaries.