MIRAGES JANUARY 21, 2014
On Saturday, Chris Christie opened a new front in the campaign to save his political career. The governor attacked MSNBC, a one-time booster that has morphed into the leading cable instigator of bridge-scandal coverage, for being a “partisan network” whose efforts to advance the story were “almost gleeful.” By way of elaboration, a Christie spokesman complained that “[t]here is a difference between treating this matter seriously and … irresponsibly using hearsay and conjecture without confirming the facts.” He released a 1,500-word, multi-count indictment to show how MSNBC was guilty of the latter.
Beyond simply undermining the credibility of his most dogged tormentor, part of the hope in Christie’s bunker seems to be transforming the story into one about media bias rather than the underlying offense, thereby rallying red-meat Republicans to his side. And, sure enough, Monday brought evidence that it was working. In a piece entitled “GOP activists side with Chris Christie over media,” Politico described “a surprising level of sympathy for the moderate Republican Garden Stater among some conservatives.” A few standard caveats notwithstanding, the Politico story was full of talk of wagons circling to fend off a “liberal movement” that “has it in” for the governor. “I think there is definitely an opening for him, given that grass-roots activists don’t trust the East Coast media to give Republicans a fair shake,” explained Tim Albrecht, until recently the spokesman for Christie’s Iowa counterpart, Terry Branstad. “It could work in his favor among conservative activists in early states, no question.”
To which the proper response is, “No, it couldn’t.” If Christie is hoping conservative media-hatred will buck up his 2016 presidential hopes, then he’s even deader than any of us realized.
Christie’s potential appeal to conservatives has, of course, long been dubious thanks to his numerous heresies on both policy (Obamacare, gun control, global warming, immigration) and more tribal matters (see his defenses of a Muslim judge, his embrace of Obama during the Sandy aftermath). And yet some Christie boosters (okay, this one) have argued that the recent scandals could actually help his 2016 chances by forcing him to focus on a “more explicitly conservative” agenda. This is—how to put it?—bonkers. Courting the right as a Republican moderate is almost always self-defeating. In order to appeal to justifiably suspicious conservatives, the moderate has to move much further to the right in a presidential primary than someone with real conservative bona fides. This, in turn, makes the erstwhile moderate far less attractive to general-election voters and defeats the original rationale for his candidacy.
To see this, just think all the way back to the last time a moderate won the GOP nomination. I’m not sure if Romney’s lurch to the right to reassure conservatives in 2011 and much of 2012 was his biggest general-election liability, but it was up there. (And, as Jonathan Chait explains, Romney had the benefit of essentially running unopposed for the nomination. Christie will not have that luxury.)
Then there’s the problem that, as satisfying as it may feel in the moment, media-bashing has a rather poor track record of papering over candidates’ ideological heresies. Just ask those august GOP nominees, Newt Gingrich (global warming, immigration, chronic bride-shopping) and Rudy Giuliani (gay marriage, abortion, gun control). The seams invariably show, especially since the media-bashers tend to be pols who’ve basked in a fair amount of media adulation at various points in their careers. Sooner or later, Republican voters tend to notice that the anti-media fulminating is suspiciously timed to deflect the most damning questions.
That’s not to say media-bashing can’t work—it clearly has on occasion. But the only reliable formula is when the infraction that kindled the media firestorm in the first place attests to one’s conservative credentials. Say, when Sarah Palin accuses the Democratic nominee for president of palling around with terrorists, then blames the resulting uproar on media bias. Or, to pick the more relevant example of a moderate trying to gin up conservative support, when Rudy Giuliani questions whether waterboarding is in fact torture, accuses Democrats of refusing to use the term “Islamic terrorist” out of misplaced political correctness, or trims the welfare rolls by hundreds of thousands of people. All of these prompted a media uproar, which in turn prompted Giuliani to attack the “liberal media.” (Not that he ever needed much provocation.) And though these frequent outbursts didn’t exactly secure the GOP nomination for him (see point one), they probably did boost his ratings among primary voters at various points in 2007.
The big problem for Christie, on the other hand, is that the scandals driving his brutal media coverage—most famously Bridge-gate, but also his alleged attempt to withhold Sandy relief funds from the city of Hoboken unless the mayor backed a project for a powerful developer, to say nothing of a series of older scandals, like ostentatiously abusing his expense account as a U.S. attorney, funneling fat federal contracts to key backers, etc.—all cut in the wrong direction ideologically. They sound like a Tea Partier’s nightmare of big government. As much as conservatives might have a soft spot for victims of the liberal media, once the dust clears, it’s hard to imagine them feeling very sympathetic to a candidate who’s been attacked for a litany of sins that aren’t just morally suspect in their eyes, but ideologically damning. As it happens, Giuliani’s own media-bashing officially jumped the shark when he deployed it during a scandal that was similarly off-message ideologically—a Politico report that he’d billed New York City taxpayers for tens of thousands of dollars of security expenses that he ran up while visiting his mistress.
Let’s not kid ourselves: Christie’s 2016 chances are plummeting regardless of what he does, so in some sense this discussion is academic. But if he’s going to have any prayer at all in the GOP primaries, I’d guess there’s a bigger percentage for him in continuing to engage the media, however painful this is, rather than attacking it.
As Chait has pointed out, Christie’s only path to the nomination is to persuade GOP elders he’s the most electable candidate, then hope they have the juice to deliver for him. That electability case has obviously taken a hit of late, but it’s still his best hope, as his generally centrist inaugural speech suggests he understands. Unfortunately, in order to make a plausible electability case, Christie’s going to have to prove he can still get his message out through the mainstream media. And that’s not something you accomplish by starting a blood feud with the people who made you.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow @noamscheiber