photo by Alex Hanson
It takes speed, agility, quickness and precision to play most positions in the National Hockey League, but many teams reserve a roster spot for a player who may not possess any of these qualities. That player is known as the enforcer, or sometimes just the goon.
In theory, the enforcer has the admirable duty of protecting his teammates by retaliating against opponents who subject them to cheap shots. Picture a mall cop armed with a hockey stick. In practice, however, the goon’s assignment may be to simply take down an opponent who is getting penetration, especially if the goon plays for a team that is otherwise less talented than the opposition.
As I surmised more than two years ago, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie proved to be damaged goods in the race for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. Iowa caucusers barely gave him a second look, and he finished a dismal sixth in New Hampshire, even after spending so much time there that he could have moonlighted as a snowmobile salesman. Yesterday he quit the race, finally acknowledging the reality that was clear to most of us no later than last May, when two of his closest aides were indicted in the Bridgegate scandal and third associate pleaded guilty.
It is possible, perhaps even likely, that Christie was the last adult in America to realize that his White House dream was dead. We all have a natural tendency to believe recent history is bound to repeat itself. Christie won his last election campaign in a landslide just 27 months ago. He could well have doubted all the objective evidence that his fortunes had fallen so far, so fast.
But if we give the former prosecutor credit for being able to evaluate evidence with a cool professional eye and to use it to his best advantage, however weak it might be, there is another interpretation to consider. By the time the race shifted from Iowa to New Hampshire, it was clear to Christie that his campaign was failing, leaving him with only one opportunity - last Saturday’s debate - to try to take somebody else down with him. That somebody, as we all now know, was Sen. Marco Rubio.
Rubio’s strategy in New Hampshire had been to let his advertising do his negative campaigning (including some ads targeting Christie that infuriated the notoriously thin-skinned New Jerseyan), while his personal appearances stuck closely to an optimistic, positive message about Republican policies, reserving attacks for President Obama and other Democrats. But that programming proved disastrous when Christie baited Rubio into simply repeating the same script four times. It was a great debate moment and an excellent cross-examination of a hostile witness, even though it failed as a campaign strategy, since Christie finished behind Rubio anyway.
So if not himself, who was Christie serving? The two main beneficiaries of his effort were Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, who finished second in New Hampshire, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who finished fourth - just ahead of Rubio, and just well enough to keep his campaign rationale intact as the race moves to South Carolina’s Feb. 20 primary. Christie’s attack was perfectly aligned with Bush’s campaign argument that Rubio lacks the experience to be president. As Christie was making the point in the debate, the same argument was being pushed hard in New Hampshire by Right to Rise, the Bush-aligned super PAC that carpeted the state with attacks on Rubio after Rubio’s surprisingly strong Iowa showing.
So, by last Saturday, was Christie still a free agent, or was he effectively playing for Team Bush? Christie probably still hoped against all odds for a strong enough New Hampshire showing to keep his own campaign alive, but if not, he knew exactly where to make his final opportunity on the presidential campaign stage count in his own long-term self-interest.
There was no upside for Christie in attacking front-runner Donald Trump over his own lack of experience, or knowledge, or any other shortcoming. Trump supporters simply don’t care, and Trump was going to win New Hampshire no matter what. And taking on Iowa winner Sen. Ted Cruz held no benefit for Christie, since Cruz was not expected to do very well in New Hampshire anyway. The fact that Bush ended up finishing behind Cruz in relatively moderate New Hampshire is a telling sign of how weak the Bush candidacy actually is.
But the Bush family, like the Clinton dynasty on the Democrat side, prizes loyalty above all else. Bush donors have been hearing this for months, as bundlers urge them to finance Jeb’s struggling campaign even as it fails to gain traction, because clan members will remember who stood by them and who did not.
It was Jeb Bush’s brother, President George W. Bush, who appointed Christie to the U.S. attorney position in New Jersey back in 2001. Had he not done so, I would have written this piece about somebody else, because neither you nor I would likely have heard of Chris Christie. In the plausible but unlikely event Jeb actually makes it to the White House, I won’t be surprised to hear Christie’s name mentioned for a top Justice Department job, maybe even attorney general - assuming none of his former cronies ends up implicating him in a certain traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge, that is.
It is safe to say that Christie will not be joining a Rubio cabinet, nor that of any other GOP presidential hopeful still in the race, except maybe for Trump. Heaven alone knows what Trump’s process would be for staffing an administration, though it could look something like the auditions for “The Apprentice.”
Chris Christie never got around to telling us during the campaign how he would feel about that.