Over the past few days, Republican establishment leaders have rained down on Mr. Christie with a barrage of opinions — sometimes contradictory — in response to the media-driven fury over the closing of lanes on a New Jersey bridge that has put Mr. Christie’s 2016 presidential ambitions at risk.
Some party leaders have suggested “Bridgegate” is a small-potatoes scandal unworthy of attention, or pleaded to give Mr. Christie the benefit of the doubt. Others have shown far less sympathy, suggesting that the New Jersey governor should own a controversy that emanates from his own smashmouth political style.
“It seems to me that this whole bridge thing reinforces a narrative that’s troublesome about the guy. He’s kind of a bully,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican up for re-election this year, told NBC News.
Even former President George W. Bush’s chief political adviser, Karl Rove, the last Republican strategist to forge a winning coalition for the White House, has gotten crossways with a vocal wing of the party by suggesting that Mr. Christie may have earned some “street cred” last week with the tea party by quickly firing the aides responsible for the lane closures and resulting traffic tie-ups.
“Rove’s statement shows, as he shown in the last election cycle, he has no idea what he is talking about when it comes to the tea party or elections,” said Cleveland Tea Party founder Ralph King. “The firing of [Mr. Christie‘s] top aides was not enough to hide his RINO [Republican in name only] horn, and it is laughable at best for Rove to think this earned Christie any ‘street cred’ with the tea party movement.”
Political scandals can be galvanizing, getting party members to rally behind figures they think are unfairly accused or to abandon unsalvageable targets quickly. But the GOP has been unable to do either with Mr. Christie.
Republicans’ wildly varied responses suggest party leaders are far apart on who should be the next face of the party or even what terms the next elections should be fought on. Is it pragmatic politics or ideology that will beat the Democrats the next time?
Right now, the answer depends on whom one asks.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a veteran of presidential campaigns and a potential contender in 2016, dismisses Mr. Christie’s defense trying to deflect blame on aides who he said did not clear their actions with him.
“Personnel is policy,” Mr. Santorum said Sunday on “Meet the Press,” adding that it was “very clear that the personnel” Mr. Christie surrounded himself with were “not sensitive to what seemed to be a fairly obvious wrong thing to do.”
“The people that you hire are the policies that are implemented,” he said in explaining why Mr. Christie deserves more blame.