Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Christie 2016: Presidential access lane reopens

HE’S BACK IN the saddle again, or so it seems. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was his old pugnacious self on Monday, going back on offense against an old nemesis — the unions — but this time doing it on behalf on a fellow Republican governor. Christie was stumping in Wisconsin for Scott Walker, the Badger State’s governor and a man whose road to the White House is as long as Christie’s own.

Recently, though, Christie got what could be a big assist in the resuscitation of his fever dreams of the White House. On Sept. 18, federal prosecutors cleared Christie of wrongdoing in the Bridgegate scandal.

According to a report by WNBC, the New York City NBC affiliate (followed swiftly by other news orgs), the Justice Department found no direct link between the governor and the closure of several lanes on the George Washington Bridge last September, four days of deliberate traffic chaos, an event that complicated the lives of the people of Fort Lee, N.J., and their necessary everyday access to the busiest commuter bridge in the world.

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“Federal officials caution that the investigation that began nine months ago is ongoing and that no final determination has been made, but say that authorities haven't uncovered anything that indicates that Christie knew in advance or ordered the closure of traffic lanes,” WNBC reported on Sept. 18.

While the investigation isn’t finished yet, one former federal prosecutor with no connection to the Christie case said that after nine months of scrutiny, if there’s no smoking gun in such matters, it’s increasingly unlikely one will ever be found. “My experience with federal law enforcement is that, once you reach critical mass, if you don’t have it within nine months or so, you’re not likely to ever get it,” former federal prosecutor Robert W. Ray told WNBC.

The DoJ’s exoneration of Christie presumably clears the lanes of the governor’s political career, and revives his prospects for making a presidential run in 2016. At least theoretically. The apparent end to the Bridgegate mess is a huge imagistic weight off his shoulders. But Christie faces other potential obstacles not far along. And unlike Bridgegate, they lay directly at his feet.

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THE BAD news remains that politically as chief executive it looks like he was not in control of his administration at the time when this occurred,” said Lee Miringoff, Director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, speaking to WNBC, alluding to claims that Christie’s management style over-delegated authority in a way that made Bridgegate possible. “So that remains the downside for him. That doesn’t go away, but this panel provides greater credibility barring any further revelations coming out.”

But Christie doesn’t need other revelations about the bridge fiasco. Another issue facing him is hardly a minor thing.

On Sept. 10, Standard & Poor’s downgraded New Jersey’s credit rating, citing Christie's handling of the Garden State’s $78 billion pension system. An S&P spokesman said in a statement that the matter has “significant negative implications for the state’s liability profile.” The downgrade was the eighth under Christie’s governorship.

“The reduction to A, the sixth-highest level, with a stable outlook follows a Sept. 5 downgrade by Fitch Ratings,” Bloomberg.com reported on Sept. 10. “It gives New Jersey the same general-obligation grade as California, which is on track for an upgrade as revenue exceeds Democratic Governor Jerry Brown’s estimates. Only Illinois has lower ratings than New Jersey among U.S. states.”

The other unkindest cut: Bloomberg reports that Christie has now tied his Democratic predecessor, James McGreevey, “for the most credit reductions for a New Jersey governor.”

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That can’t be good news for anyone who presumes to run for president in the midst of an economy that’s hardly lifting all boats at the same time. In fact, if anything’s likely to keep Christie right where he is for the next two-three years — fixing the mess he made, in the governor’s mansion — the state of the Garden State’s economy might be enough.

But then there’s the other thing. In January, Dawn Zimmer, the mayor of Hoboken, accused the Christie administration of linking the payout of Hurricane Sandy hazard recovery funds to the mayor’s approval of a waterfront development project that Christie supported. The intended developer, the powerful Rockefeller Group, was represented at the time of Zimmer’s allegations by the law firm of David Samson, the close friend of Christie who, in March, quit as the chairman of the board of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. Christie’s office has denied any wrongdoing in the Hoboken matter.

James Cohen, a Fordham University law professor, told Daily Kos that the Hoboken case could be a heavier concern than the Bridgegate scandal. “Closing the George Washington Bridge, that is very serious. It takes a lot of balls,” Cohen said in January, before the feds cleared Christie. “But this deals with dollars — the misuse of federal tax dollars. The feds will treat that very, very serious.”

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AND THE governor’s gone on to make even more work for himself. In July, Christie vetoed a gun control bill that would have set a limit on gun magazine capacity to 10 rounds or less. Christie decried the bill as “trivial,” which apparently came as a surprise to the relatives of the victims of the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Adam Lanza used a 223-caliber Bushmaster rifle and several 30-round magazines to kill 20 children and 6 teachers that day in December 2012.

“We have been trying to get a private meeting with him since May 22nd to talk about this bill and he’s refused,” said Mark Barden, father of 7-year-old Daniel Barden, killed by Lanza that day at Sandy Hook. “He made this statement accusing us of ‘grandstanding’ and using ‘empty rhetoric,’” Barden told the Daily News on July 3. “That is a blow to the memories of our children. People from all over are completely outraged by his language.”

Christie has shown he’s capable of being even-handed in those he outrages. In August, the governor came under withering fire from those in his own Republican ranks when he came out in support of expanding Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s crown jewel. This lets New Jersey accept federal funds to cover poor residents with incomes up to 133 percent of the poverty level — an estimated 300.000 uninsured state residents.

The Washington Times reported on Aug. 18 that “his embrace of Medicare does create a political problem similar to the one that dogged 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.”

“The farther away from Obamacare any governor is, the better off they are,” said Charlie Gerow, of the board of the American Conservative Union, to The Times. “The problem is there is some nuance to all of that, and politics is not about nuance.”

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WHICH IS not a problem for Chris Christie. Nuance has never been an issue for this king of the gauntlet throwdown. Since his ascendancy into the national spotlight, he’s prided himself on purveying a brash, unfiltered politics that takes no prisoners, a zero-sum-game style of rule that sharply delineates friend from foe, and doesn’t believe it’s a B.F. Deal what you think of either one. Some in the GOP orthodoxy, for example, still give Christie the apostate’s stinkeye for his walk with President Obama along the Jersey Shore in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, on the eve of the 2012 election.

“It was obvious to many people in New Jersey that he was putting his state ahead of his party,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute Murray, to The New York Times in late November 2012. “You always get points for leadership when you do that.”

If Christie’s serious about 2016, that may be both harder to do and more difficult whenever he does it. Despite being exonerated in the Bridgegate snafu, Christie still has to deal with things that make him a hard sell to the American public.

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Since the recent crises turned up the burn rate of a lot of his PR capital (and because Jersey’s financial woes will do the same for months to come) the governor’s going to have to spend a fair amount of time just telling the country who Chris Christie is — beyond being someone with a selectively autocratic management style and an inclination for going off on anybody who crosses him.

That my-way-or-highway attitude, that element of style feeds into a perception of Republican intolerance that already exists. To make headway as a serious presidential contender in 2016, if he wants to go that way, Christie will have to keep breaking new ground, keep pushing back against the old party optics, the old party orthodoxy. Primary-season audiences may not be ready for that.

Still, one thing at a time. With Bridgegate apparently behind him, the traffic cones most immediately blocking Chris Christie’s political career are out of the way. Job #1: Navigate the slalom of political barriers and potholes not that far down the street where he lives. Job #2: Compute the gas in the tank, and the fire in the belly, as he approaches that next big on-ramp. The one marked “2016 — MERGING TRAFFIC.”

Image credits: Christie and Walker: Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com). Christie portrait: Ralph Freso/Associated Press. Zimmer: Marko Georgiev/The Record. Newtown memorial: Timothy Clary/Getty Images. Christie magazine cover: ©2013 TIME. Obama and Christie: via MSNBC. 

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