His news coverage has been brutal. His poll numbers are dropping. His enemies inside and outside his party are crowing that his presidential ambitions are over, and some journalists agree.
It would nonetheless be a mistake to count out New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for the Republican nomination in 2016. The scandals that have plagued Christie lately may even, in a roundabout way, make him more likely to win the presidency.
Some skepticism about Christie’s presidential chances predates the Fort Lee scandal (in which his subordinates are accused of orchestrating a traffic jam to punish an uncooperative mayor). It’s mostly based on the idea that Christie is too liberal to win the primaries. But Christie doesn’t cross any of the party’s red lines: He’s not pro-choice, and he’s not for higher taxes.
Sure, you can draw up a list of issues where he has been out of step with most Republicans. But the party’s last two nominees had longer lists, with more important issues on them. Mitt Romney had a recent history of supporting legal abortion, and his record on the top domestic issue of the past few years – health care – put him at odds with conservatives. Sen. John McCain had broken with them on taxes, guns, climate change, stem cells, immigration, campaign finance and more.
Most of the past seven Republican nominations have gone to people to the left of the party’s center of gravity, and none of them to anyone on its right. Why is that? Think of the nominating contest as a competition for the affection of three groups: the activist-conservative base of the party (groups like the Club for Growth and the Family Research Council), the party regulars (people who consider themselves “conservative” but not “very conservative”), and the party establishment (elected officials, campaign operatives, big donors).
The base typically splits its vote among several candidates, including a few who don’t strike the regulars as commander-in-chief material.
The establishment always picks someone who passes that test, and usually picks him early in the process, before the first primary votes are cast. (Unlike the base, it doesn’t display much imagination in making its choice.) So the establishment candidate usually wins.
The 2016 primary season might not shape up this way, but that’s the way to bet. The race will almost certainly feature crowding on the right once again, and the establishment still seems to favor Christie over any of his competitors, even after the traffic scandal.
In New Hampshire, Christie should do well, especially if Hillary Rodham Clinton dominates the Democratic field. In that case, independents will vote in the competitive Republican primary rather than the dull Democratic one, and they will surely back Christie over candidates running to his right.
Christie was never going to have a coronation, however, and the primaries will still be a slog. Two early states, Iowa and South Carolina, aren’t great fits for him. Although he could appeal to a lot of Florida Republicans, he might be running against home-state favorites, such as Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush. If Bush runs – and his intentions aren’t at all clear – then Christie might have a real struggle holding establishment support.
For now, however, Christie’s chances of winning the nomination seem better than those of anyone else. And his recent troubles may help him insofar as they cause him to discard a risky strategy. Before the past few weeks, he may have thought that after winning the nomination his sheer charisma would lead him to a general-election victory. Many Republicans think that it was Romney’s lack of charisma that lost him the presidency in 2012. That’s a mistake: The actual electoral difficulties of the Republican Party run much deeper than that.
The traffic scandal makes it less likely that Christie will go down this blind alley. It has made the downside of his personality loom larger, and so will force him to base his campaign on something else. And because of the nature of the scandal, and the partisan reaction to it, that “something else” can’t just be his effectiveness as a manager of government or as a leader who can reach across the aisle.
It seems to me, then, that the most promising path left open for Christie is to run as a Republican from outside the boardroom: someone who will tackle, in conservative ways, the issues that concern Americans in all income groups – from the affordability of health care to wage growth.
If Christie does that, he will also be leading the way forward for his party.
• Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at the National Review.