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GOP’s big tent springs a hole over Christie flap as party divided on ‘Bridgegate’ response

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ANALYSIS:

If the GOP is still the party of the big tent, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie needs to check the roof over his section for a gaping hole.

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.

Tea party folks shot back by suggesting that Mr. Rove and Mr. Christie may both be out of touch.

"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.

Mixed messages

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.

Mr. Graham agreed, saying the proximity of the top aides responsible for the controversy may be Mr. Christie's biggest liability.

"If anybody in my office had done such a thing, they knew what their fate would be because I'm not that kind of guy," Mr. Graham said. "I just don't see how people that close to him could have felt comfortable enough to do this if they thought their boss wasn't of this mindset. Isn't that just common sense?"

Mr. Graham predicted that Mr. Christie has set himself up for a 2016 presidential primary fall in a region where Republicans regard as their own.

"He's going to have a hard time in the South," he said.

Republicans had hoped to be spending this month talking about the continued failures of Obamacare, or their own solutions to the still-struggling economy. Instead, they spent most of the Sunday talk shows debating whether Mr. Christie's staff members were guilty of petty political vengeance or a crime that betrays the Republican commitment to law and order.

Even among some of Mr. Christie's potential 2016 competitors, there is little agreement on how to play the scandal.

Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky declined to pile on the New Jersey governor when prodded. Mr. Paul even offered faint praise by suggesting there should be room inside the GOP for "moderates like Chris Christie who can win in New Jersey."

Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman who often sides with conservatives, heaped praise on the man many of the GOP's major donors think has the best chance to win them back the White House in 2016, citing his lengthy press conference Thursday answering every question on the scandal.

"Chris Christie has been totally open here," Mr. Priebus said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "He stood there for 111 minutes in an open dialogue with the press."

Mr. Priebus also sought to turn the tables on Democrats. "Now, only if Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would give us 111 seconds of that, would we find out some things we want to find out about Obamacare?" he said.

American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas said Mr. Christie has at the very least a perception problem and "now has to overcome abuse-of-power allegations in his administration. And for him, it's not one of these 'It's so unlike him' circumstances."

How well Mr. Christie does on that front — and how well the rest of the party does in quickly finding a common message — will go far in determining whether Democrats get to change the public debate more permanently from Obamacare to "Bridgegate."

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

About the Author
Ralph Z. Hallow

Ralph Z. Hallow

Chief political writer Ralph Z. Hallow served on the Chicago Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Washington Times editorial boards, was Ford Foundation Fellow in Urban Journalism at Northwestern University, resident at Columbia University Editorial-Page Editors Seminar and has filed from Berlin, Bonn, London, Paris, Geneva, Vienna, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Belgrade, Bucharest, Panama and Guatemala.

 

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