Christie Cleared on Bridgegate. Now What?
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie received some very good news yesterday: A nine-month federal investigation has apparently turned up no evidence that he either directed or knew about the politically motivated closing of lanes on the George Washington Bridge by his aides in September 2013.
Does that mean the scandal is over and done with, and won't have any effect on his possible campaign for the Republican presidential nomination?
An end of the investigation would at least clear one big potential hurdle by removing the possibility that another shoe is about to drop. Even if Republican party actors were inclined to trust him, it's never very safe to get out on a limb with a politician who has a federal investigation or criminal complaint in the background. That's why Texas Governor Rick Perry's indictment on charges of abuse of power is a real problem for him, even if almost every Republican (and most neutral observers) thinks the case is bogus. It's risky to commit campaign resources to the whims of grand juries, prosecutors and trial juries.
It remains unclear what Republican party actors think about Christie, including what they may have learned about him from this scandal. This is especially true of those Republicans -- including politicians, governing professionals and interest group leaders -- who would expect to work closely with a Christie White House or become part of his administration. They are almost certainly asking themselves: If Christie's political style is to be a bully, would that be a good thing (because he would use it to defeat enemies) or a bad thing (because he may use it against friends and foes alike, and at any rate who wants to be around a bully)?
Republicans also will be asking themselves how this scandal will affect his electability in the general election. My outsider's view remains that candidates only matter on the margins because voters are overwhelmingly loyal to their party, with the other large effect having to do with how swing voters feel about the party in the White House. Barring an indictment, Bridgegate was always going to be old news by November 2016. Still, elections are sometimes won on the margins, and what matters in this case is that many Republicans (and most of those who might potentially champion Christie, who was never going to be big with the guardians of conservative orthodoxy) believe that electability matters.
The answer to those questions will determine the health of Christie's White House bid. After all, there is no shortage of viable candidates for party actors to choose from, and quite a few who presumably appeal to the same people who Christie will need. Those potential candidates include Ohio Governor John Kasich, Senator Rob Portman, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and maybe Representative Paul Ryan. So what it all comes down to is whether the party actors who would have to support Christie think his style is a plus or a minus. Listen to them, and you'll know what kind of shape Christie is in.
At least, a shoe directly involving Christie. If there are indictments of his staff members, things could still get ugly -- and in the middle of a presidential race.
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