How Bridgegate Is Helping Christie With Conservatives

Media scrutiny of the New Jersey governor is earning him some sympathy points.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivers his budget address for fiscal year 2015 to the Legislature, February 25, 2014 at the Statehouse in Trenton, New Jersey.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
March 6, 2014, 1:14 p.m.

As New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie tries to over­come con­ser­vat­ive skep­ti­cism about his re­cord, he’s find­ing a new ally in con­vin­cing the base he’s not all that bad: the me­dia.

The rev­el­a­tion that Christie’s top aides im­prop­erly closed traffic lanes in an act of polit­ic­al re­tri­bu­tion has dam­aged his repu­ta­tion and led pun­dits to ques­tion his elect­ab­il­ity. But to many rock-ribbed Re­pub­lic­ans at the Con­ser­vat­ive Polit­ic­al Ac­tion Con­fer­ence on Thursday, the press’s with­er­ing scru­tiny of the gov­ernor’s role in “Bridgeg­ate” makes him a sym­path­et­ic fig­ure — just the latest in a long line of GOP lead­ers to bear the un­fair at­tacks of a biased me­dia.

The changed at­ti­tude was ap­par­ent at this week’s con­fer­ence, an event that only a year ago snubbed the blue-state Re­pub­lic­an over his chum­mi­ness with Pres­id­ent Obama and out­spoken cri­ti­cism of con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans look­ing to tight­en spend­ing for Hur­ricane Sandy. This year, Christie spoke and de­livered a well-re­ceived speech that ended with a stand­ing ova­tion among the thou­sands who packed the room.

In in­ter­views, many CPAC at­tendees cau­tioned they’re still wary of Christie’s mod­er­a­tion on is­sues like gun con­trol and his past chummy re­la­tion­ship with Obama. Few named him their top 2016 choice. But sev­er­al at­tendees offered that Christie has an op­por­tun­ity to re­pair some of the dam­age done to his re­la­tion­ship with con­ser­vat­ives, thanks to the me­dia’s in­cess­ant fo­cus on the gov­ernor.

“The me­dia at­tacks on Christie have helped him with Re­pub­lic­ans and con­ser­vat­ives who were, to some de­gree, sus­pi­cious of him be­cause the me­dia liked him so much,” said Er­ick Er­ick­son, a prom­in­ent con­ser­vat­ive pun­dit.

“I think he won a lot of friends be­cause they can see that the es­tab­lish­ment lib­er­al me­dia were at­tack­ing him. That al­ways causes people to sit up and take no­tice,” ad­ded former U.N. Am­bas­sad­or John Bolton, a rumored pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate him­self.

Christie spoke about how Re­pub­lic­ans need to of­fer a more con­struct­ive mes­sage to win elec­tions, and avoided any ex­pli­cit ref­er­ences to Bridgeg­ate. But his fre­quent ad­mon­i­tions to­ward the me­dia sug­ges­ted it wasn’t far from his mind.

“We have to stop let­ting the me­dia define who we are and what we stand for,” said Christie, a theme he re­turned to sev­er­al times throughout the speech. “When we’re talk­ing about what we’re for … our ideas win.”

Christie still would face fun­da­ment­al chal­lenges in a Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial nom­in­at­ing fight. An ABC News/Wash­ing­ton Post poll re­leased Thursday found nearly three in 10 Re­pub­lic­ans would not con­sider vot­ing for him for pres­id­ent. For com­par­is­on, only 20 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans said they wouldn’t con­sider fel­low prob­able White House hope­ful Marco Ru­bio, whose im­mig­ra­tion-re­form ef­forts have caused him his own trouble among con­ser­vat­ives.

The me­dia-en­abled re­set should help Christie, but con­ser­vat­ives cau­tion he still has a lot of work to do be­fore re­turn­ing to their good graces. Many at­tendees said the gov­ernor should view the cur­rent mo­ment as an op­por­tun­ity to ar­tic­u­late a vis­ion that con­ser­vat­ives can rally be­hind. In oth­er words, his re­prieve is only tem­por­ary.

“Ul­ti­mately, con­ser­vat­ives will vote on the basis of philo­sophy, so it’s up to him … to ex­plain why, philo­soph­ic­ally, con­ser­vat­ives should sup­port him,” Bolton said.

In in­ter­views with rank-and-file con­ser­vat­ives, most in­dic­ated that al­though they’re open to a Christie can­did­acy, he has a lot to prove to con­ser­vat­ives be­fore they sup­port him.

“He’s not a rock-ribbed con­ser­vat­ive, and every­one knows that,” said Bri­an Hamp­ton, a 70-year-old Re­pub­lic­an from Ar­ling­ton, Va.

Chris Adding­ton, a 56-year-old New Hamp­shire Re­pub­lic­an who at­ten­ded CPAC with his son, said he ques­tions Christie’s re­cord on gun con­trol. “In gen­er­al, you have con­ser­vat­ives who have con­cerns about him,” he said.

Oth­ers ac­know­ledged that al­though they were up­set with the me­dia’s cov­er­age of Christie, it hadn’t rad­ic­ally changed their think­ing about him. An­thony Fama of Mas­sachu­setts said that the me­dia’s bi­as “couldn’t be more ob­vi­ous,” adding that he felt “em­bar­rassed” for them. But the 49-year-old said sym­pathy for the gov­ernor won’t last. “I think it’s something that will be short-lived,” he said.

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