Gov. Chris Christie, beleaguered back in New Jersey and in the national media over the scandal of contrived traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge, unveiled his strategy for putting his 2016 presidential aspirations back on track the other day before the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
As they say in some unsavory Jersey quarters, he clammed up in the hope of making the problem go away. His earlier claim of having been kept in the dark about the plot to make a Democratic mayor pay for failing to endorse his successful re-election only heightened the political heat on him. So Mr. Christie pivoted to preaching to the choir on his conservative bona fides.
For about 15 minutes without notes, he delivered a heaping plate of smaller government, lower taxes and tough love toward his blue-state constituents, along with red-meat attacks on his former best friend, President Barack Obama, and his favorite target, the critical news media.
The free-wheeling and confident speech recalled to the right-wing faithful why they should be his corner, despite his Jersey woes and his grateful 2012 embrace of Mr. Obama during the Hurricane Sandy crisis, which came at the expense of Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
Christie chided Mr. Obama as a bystander in the recent successful budget negotiations, ticking off a string of GOP governors — Scott Walker in Wisconsin, John Kasich in Ohio, Rick Snyder in Michigan, Rick Scott in Florida — as examples of assertive chief executives producing budgetary results at the state level.
The litany was a reminder of where the strength of the party resides and how it has been able to combat the criticisms of a liberal press bent on casting it as intolerant of opposing views. "We've got to stop letting the media define who we are and what we stand for," he said, in a return of the in-your-face style that was his trademark before his temporary Trafficgate retrenchment.
"You know I'm shy and retiring and don't like to speak my mind, especially regarding the media," he said sarcastically. Then, in a cooled-off version of the ranting television commentator in "Network," he argued that "what we need to start saying is that we're not going to put up any longer with them defining who we are."
In all, Mr. Christie's appearance was a return to the more favorable political wars and the themes that first brought him to the attention of a conservative party wing still doubtful about his commitment to its gospel. On the key issue of abortion, he assured the crowd of his unswerving opposition, at the same time counseling that the party must not just campaign on what it's against, but on what it's for.
He reiterated as well his argument, of particular pertinence to this crowd, that it was fine to hew to party principle, but unless Republicans won the power to govern, they would have no way to put their principles into practice — and stop the Democrats from doing likewise.
Reassuring this conservative conference that a year ago had snubbed him, Mr. Christie served up what it wanted to hear, in his old brash and confident manner. But the elephant in the room remains: Can he untangle himself from the scandal back in New Jersey, which either painted him as even more of a bully than his manner already conveyed or, despite his bravado, cast him as a governor not in control of his own staff?
Beyond all the battering he has taken, particularly from liberal cable television commentators, Mr. Christie must weather the investigations of the state legislature into the very questions that were Richard Nixon's undoing: What did he know, and when did he know it? And, just as important in this case, what if anything did Mr. Christie do about it if he knew earlier than he has acknowledged?
It was widely said in Watergate that the cover-up was worse than the crime. If the investigation of Trafficgate leaves any of Mr. Christie fingerprints on the sordid affair, the same judgment could apply.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.
To respond to this commentary, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name and contact information.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun