The Three Ways Conservatives Are Handling the Chris Christie Scandal

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Jan. 9 2014 6:43 PM

The Three Ways Conservatives Are Handling the Chris Christie Scandal

So, Chris Christie's said his piece. The press corps, ignoring the calendar that says the New Hampshire primary is two years away, is processing What This Scandal Means for his chances.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

What it means, of course, will be decided by Republicans. They're reacting in a few identifiable ways.

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1) Gloating. It's like McKay Coppins says here: Many, many conservatives resent Christie and the place he's earned in the Republican Party. Both Coppins and I have quoted Steve Deace, an influential radio host in Iowa, who's been on the record criticizing Christie as an establishment hack who's exactly wrong to put up against Hillary Clinton in 2016. But lots of other critics refuse to forgive Christie for his eleventh-hour Hurricane Sandy hug of Barack Obama. Political scientists have chortled at the suggestion that Christie pushed the president over the top, but the people who badly wanted to elect Mitt Romney have never forgiven him. Not fully.

Plus, they just didn't like the guy. In Double Down and Collision 2012, the two big 2013 histories of the campaign, lots of sources dish about Christie's egoism.* "Trenton insisted on private jets, lavish spreads of food, space for a massive entourage," reported Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. Christie's convention speech annoyed some (not all!) Romney staff, and led to a public confrontation between the governor and Romney fixer Ron Kaufman over pre-speech leaks. After the presser today, one former consultant for a 2012 candidate (one that wasn't endorsed by Christie) hoped, sort of sarcastically, that "the world's worst" press team had been "less incompetent" than usual as they spun this scandal.

2). Pity. No Republican figure had a better week, vis-à-vis the downfall of his rivals, than Sen. Rand Paul. On Monday, Liz Cheney left the Wyoming primary for U.S. Senate, snuffing out a neoconservative voice that had been critical of the Paul style. Then came the Christie news. Paul, you'll remember, has happily cut into Christie for his "grubbing" Hurricane Sandy relief money. This whole scandal was a gift to Paul's side.

Reached by NBC News, though, Paul was circumspect. "I don't know who emailed who and who works for whom," Paul said. "I have been in traffic before though and I know how angry I am when I'm in traffic and I've always wondered, 'Who did this to me?' "

Paul went easy, like a lot of Republicans are going easy. Why pile on the guy? Maybe the next New Jersey poll will show his approval rating holding up (hey, Reagan pulled it off after Iran-Contra), but to Iowans and New Hampshire voters and anyone outside the Acela corridor, Christie is now famous as the governor whose vindictive staff shut down a bridge. One strategist, who planned to work for a rival 2016 campaign, assured me that Christie had crested.

3.) Pride. There's plenty of this on display, though it's pretty contextual. Christie's marathon press conference, multiple apologies, and proud staff firings inspired some conservatives to think of the real enemy. Hey, would Barack Obama ever behave like this? I asked Phil Kerpen, an ally of Christie's 2009 primary rival Steve Lonegan—a conservative veteran of David Koch's Americans for Prosperity, who's pressured Christie to move right—what he thought of the presser.

"Governor Christie handled the situation well," said Kerpen. "He took responsibility, apologized, and terminated the people who were involved. Basically the opposite of how President Obama has handled incompetence and malfeasance in his administration, which voters are likely to appreciate."

By and large the 2012 veterans I talked to had the same impression. They did not want to see Christie fail, then or now. The guy who spun the press for two hours on a complicated scandal should be able to spin much less recondite topics in the future.

"The presser was masterful," said David Freddoso, a conservative author who's written two biographies of President Obama, focusing on his scandals. "I'm glad he can plausibly claim he wasn't involved—but he sure better be telling the truth, because if anything comes to light that's inconsistent with what he said ... "

*Correction, Jan. 10, 2014: This post originally misidentified Collision 2012 as Battle 2012.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.