The crowd of Republican big shots turned their heads skyward with the sound of a helicopter, descending like a Close Encounters of a Third Kind vision in a refinery-clear New Jersey sky absent the Orson Welles voice-over.
Donald Trump alighted on the green with his wife and made his way in to the Gov. Chris Christie fundraiser – the headliner, who, as it turned out, had already made his statement for the evening.
Trump wouldn’t amplify himself to the crowd.
Christie reserved the right to alone dominate the microphone, a careful piece of stagecraft meant to highlight the fact that as long as the governor occupies a room, so too does he hold the alpha male privilege to hold forth unencumbered by the voices of other power players.
This was the observation made by a Republican source, who found it just as baffling when, a month and change later, Romney occupied the same stage as Christie and intoned to a hushed crowd as Christie stood patiently in the wings.
“One of two things is happening,” explained the source, scrunched into a coffee house with the bill of a baseball cap shading his eyes.
“Either Christie is confident that Romney isn’t running for president and so therefore doesn’t mind giving him the stage, or…” and here the chin tilted up and the face glared in devilish delight. “Or… Christie knows he can’t get past Romney and he’s making a play for vice president. His endgame now is VP. Think about it. If either [Jeb] Bush or Romney gets in the race, Chris is toast. Toast. He can’t do it. That’s donors. Establishment love. Everything the moderate wing of the party will need to crush a Tea Party right wing rebellion in a Republican Primary.”
PolitickerNJ pushed back.
Christie’s a populist – with real political instincts. Put him on a stage with Romney – or Bush – or better yet, Romney and Bush, and he would make them both look stiff and aloof, privileged and prim – the donors be damned.
The source resisted, the calm voice giving way to shades of anger.
“Then why, G-d dammit, is he putting Jamie Fox in there as the Department of Transportation commissioner – a former McGreevey guy, a Torricelli guy, a former Obama guy, for C-st’s freaking sake,” the source exclaimed. “That tells me he knows the presidential play is over. Listen, there is a lot of establishment goodwill for Romney now. The Russia strategy. Remember the way Romney called Russia? Chris is going to have a problem with foreign policy. Say what you want about him. Romney is not a parochial guy.”
Christie’s one shot is to corral the party establishment, the source argued.
Short of that, he has no shot.
Given these recent events, the Fox choice most dramatic among them, the source said he’s unconvinced Christie now believes he can make his case.
PolitickerNJ – on the strength of other conversations with a handful of other GOP sources – disagreed, arguing that the Fox pick was – in addition to having statewide implications, of course – finally a presidential move, not a statement of abdication and not a statement of intent for the vice presidency.
The NJ governor would never be able to get the right wing – the Rand Paul Ted Cruz wing of the party. Agreed. But to make his best case to the establishment, Christie needed to shore up his once impenetrable but now damaged managerial cred and buff his image as a leader.
In New Jersey, that means working with Democrats. Certainly insiders know the back story about how the centers of real party power never got too tough with the governor through his worst trials – but the national audience saw Democrats landing punches at will for a year post Bridgegate.
Further complicating matters is his unsteadiness (relative to what he enjoyed heading toward re-election) at home amid an accelerating field of gubernatorial contenders who want to succeed him, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) among them.
By picking Fox and setting in motion a plan to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF), Christie resets with New Jersey Democrats – not just the Norcross-DiVincenzo-Stack triumvirate, which has always embraced him – but, conceivably, with the likes of Assembly Transportation Chairman John Wisniewski (D-19), co-chair of the investigative committee examining Bridgegate.
Not that Christie cares about Wisneiwski’s political opinion. Certainly, Democrats swatting away at him in the lead up to a 2016 GOP Primary is a welcome addition.
But lacking an ideological play, Christie, whether he is to start the contest as the establishment choice, or give himself a chance regardless of that they do to muscle out a Bush or a Romney, needs to restore his credit as a manager.
At the very least, Bridgegate severely dented that image.
By giving the reins to Fox and opening up a chance at deepened dialogue with pockets of Democrats corroded disastrously by Bridgegate, he arcs back to the competent government storyline he feverishly cultivated prior to the George Washington Bridge fiasco.
Listen to Tom Foley, the Republican candidate for governor of Connecticut.
“I assume these are the most qualified people for the positions and if that’s the case, I’m a good government guy, and I see that as an example of good government,” Foley told PolitickerNJ reporter Chase Brush, speaking about Fox and Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D-17), the governor’s progressive nominee for the Board of Public Utilities (BPU).
It is also conceivable that by giving Sweeney a TTF win now, Christie blunts a budget battle before it begins, and silences (again, not that he cares) that incessant – but admittedly already quieting – cage of Democratic Party provocateurs who keep saying that he can’t get through another statewide budget season.
The source warily absorbed those opinions.
But here’s more.
The trip to Mexico, the terror combat stance with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo with an obvious internationally attentive flavor, the painstaking attempts at every turn to appear Hispanic friendly – not to mention the travel – all speak of continuing and relentless presidential run moves.
Key sources close to the governor say he’ll announce after the first of the New Year, and despite the latest round of insiders insisting on a new ambition hinging on the decisions of Romney and Bush, his goal remains president, not VP.
The source continued to get an earful.
The New York Times had a fascinating weekend piece examining the 1988 presidential unraveling of Gary Hart. Confronted by an infidelity, Hart revealed ambivalence about his designs on the presidency when he quit the race; in fact, arguably acknowledged he didn’t want the job.
Faced with a similar scandal to Hart’s in 1992, Bill Clinton gutted through it, insisting on the vision he had for himself amid all the henpecking at his heels – not dissimilarly (albeit, yes, a very different scandal) to Christie’s bulldozing through Bridgegate.
On his worst days, Christie rolled his eyes at calls for him to resign the chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association, landing in Colorado, for example, confidently amid Democratic efforts to paint Bob Beauprez as the associate of a scandal-plagued New Jersey wharf rat.
The source finally agreed.
And added a k
Christie, the Republican noted, looked from his earliest days, to the political playbook of Tom Kean, Sr., the former governor from his hometown of Livingston, who knew how to reach across the aisle to turn, blunt, charm, or cajole Democrats to get what he wanted – his default position in politics – like his mentor – that thorny no-man’s land of overlapping pragmatic interests.
Ironically, the source added, speculatively, it was fury to implement that playbook, which arguably drove Team Christie in its quest for endorsements from Democrats last year – and (although the details are unknown) into the horrendous overreach of allegedly punishing a Dem – Mayor Mark Sokolich – whom the governor’s team believed could be counted on for public support, who ultimately did not back the governor’s re-election.
“It was the need to be like Tom Kean,” the source sighed. “The need to be that guy – that government politics animal – who can bring hoards of Democrats on board and maybe win – by more than Kean did – in a blue state. Kean was the real rival.”
Just as those two other battleground and blue state-winning sons of privilege are now – Bush and Romney – in what is a very delicate establishment game, but one Christie – make no mistake – wants to win.
“Bush or Romney in the race dries up his fundraising and makes it more difficult for him, but no matter what they do, he’s running,” said another GOP source.