New Jersey Strong

Can Chris Christie endure his scandals by turning against media that cover them?

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivers his inaugural address after being sworn in for his second term on Jan. 21, 2014 in Trenton, N.J.

Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

The second inauguration of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie followed most of the rhythms of his first. In 2010, a much heavier and greener politician told his audience that “the era of runaway spending and higher and higher taxes has not worked.” In 2014, he denied “the power of almighty government to fix any problem, real or imagined.” In 2010, New Jersey was a possible “home for growth” once a few failed liberal policies were undone. In 2014, the state had become a sturdy fortress “for those who prefer economic growth and opportunity to redistribution and higher taxes.”

One of the few new beats, one the media picked up on immediately—and for obvious reasons—was a whack at the press. “We have to be willing to play outside the red and blue boxes that the media pundits put us in,” said Christie. That line caused a warm rush of applause, and like so many applause lines, it made no sense.

Just who were these mysterious pundits cramming Christie into a “red box”? The ones who marveled at his approval numbers among Democrats? The ones who told Republicans to copy Christie if they wanted to save their party? MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski, who got a 15-minute phone call from Christie after his two-hour “Bridgeghazi” press conference?

Well, not her, but we’re on to something with that “MSNBC” bit. In the last 72-odd hours, the biggest development in the unending Christie drama has been the governor’s turn against the cable network. (Disclosure: I often appear on MSNBC and in fact appeared on it on Tuesday to discuss Christie.) Over the weekend, MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki, a network host and reporter with fracker-deep roots in New Jersey, interviewed Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer and backed up her story that the governor had withheld some Hurricane Sandy relief money until a development he wanted was approved.

The governor’s office responded with a lengthy, footnoted statement, the kind that’s usually issued during a presidential campaign. “MSNBC is a partisan network that has been openly hostile to Governor Christie,” said spokesman Colin Reed, “and almost gleeful in their efforts attacking him, even taking the unprecedented step of producing and airing a nearly three-minute attack ad against him this week.” The spoof ad appeared on Lawrence O’Donnell’s show, not Kornacki’s, but that was almost beside the point—the statement also shamed MSNBC for coverage by Rachel Maddow (“offered a purely speculative theory”) and Chris Matthews (“comparing Governor Christie to Nixon”).

The New York Times called this a scene from a “messy divorce.” But what choice did Christie’s office have? If he’s going to run for president, the next voters he’ll have to impress are Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Right now, maybe, they’re hearing only the worst about Christie. “The bridge story is all they know about his tenure,” said former South Carolina GOP chairman Katon Dawson. But what will they think in a year, when he (probably) declares, or in two years, when they vote? That’s plenty of time for Christie to look like the victim of a scandal-crazed media that wants to create and cover a Clinton Restoration.

OK, it hasn’t worked like that so far. So far, conservative media analysis of the bridge scandal has followed this pattern: acknowledge the story, ask why [insert Obama scandal] didn’t get covered like this, cry bias. “The amount of attention paid to Chris Christie makes the coverage of Benghazi, at the same time, the coverage of the IRS, pale in significance,” said Rudy Giuliani on Fox News Sunday. Two Sundays later, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg appeared on Fox’s Media Buzz to say basically the same thing. According to Media Matters, the bridge scandal has received one hour of Fox News coverage for every 12 hours of CNN coverage and nearly every 15 hours on MSNBC.

Fox’s light touch shouldn’t shock anybody. Roger Ailes had wanted Christie to run for president in 2010, inviting him and Rush Limbaugh to a dinner/pitch meeting at his home. (The pitch didn’t work, obviously.) Limbaugh has described the scandal as a media attempt to “destroy Chris Christie.” New Jersey Democrats have the power to investigate Christie all year, but if nothing else emerges to damage him, at some point this becomes a story of liberals versus the right.

“I think this whole thing is helping Christie with precisely the people who were most skeptical of him, at least in terms of Republican primary voters,” suggested former New Hampshire GOP chairman Fergus Cullen. “Last month, Scott Brown headlined a fundraiser for the New Hampshire GOP and Brown got picketed by a large group of gun activists. They and other conservative activists would give Christie a hard time because of his ideology, too. But if the media is going after him this hard on something so peripheral to Christie himself, he can’t be all bad, right?”

Cullen pointed to some helpful data from Public Policy Polling. In New Hampshire, Republican voters who were contacted from Jan. 9 to Jan. 12 didn’t much change their opinions about Christie. Eighty-nine percent of them had heard of the bridge story. A majority, 78 percent, said that their opinion of him hadn’t budged or that it had actually improved. That’s at odds with more recent national polls but not with the patterns of partisan reaction. Liberal support for Bill Clinton stayed solid, or increased, as Republicans continued hitting him with independent counsels.

“There’s lots of precedent, for politicians making mistakes then coming back from them, like Clinton,” said Dawson. “The poll numbers, they’ll move around. The press is going to stay on Christie for a while. If it turns out the governor has told an untruth, it’ll end his ambitions.”

If it didn’t—if there is no damning email after months of investigations—Christie could recover his fan base among the Morning Joe set while coming across to Republican primary voters as a newly contrite guy who’d been treated unfairly. “A decent apology works real well,” said Dawson. “All you have to do is ask Mark Sanford.”

One problem with this: Sanford never really irritated GOP primary voters the way Christie did when he praised President Obama’s response to Hurricane Sandy. Limbaugh called it “the fatal blow” to a possible national campaign for the New Jersey governor. The few Mitt Romney donors who’ve gone on the record against Christie have cited the Sandy “embrace” as the reason. Media bashing can help sell Christie to conservative voters, but they have so many reasons to distrust him.

“I don’t think it will be possible for the man that almost singularly ensured Obummer’s re-election to generate conservative sympathy via shared media disdain,” said Iowa conservative radio host Steve Deace. “Most of the conservatives I talk to in Red State America view the GOP establishment and the liberal media as one in the same—united against us. Now, I certainly think there’s a lot of conservative enthusiasm for putting Christie and the liberal media together on the same raft for a simultaneous Viking funeral.”