It was the Saturday before Thanksgiving 2013, two years after Chris Christie had decided against running for the Republican presidential nomination, a few weeks after he had won reelection, in a landslide, as governor of New Jersey, and two months before Bridgegate would threaten to permanently sideline his political ambitions.
In the Morristown Diner, there was a vague sense that the tide was turning for the beginning of Christie’s second term, but then it could’ve just been my company: Richard Merkt, a ghost from Christie’s past—and one who had reason to dislike the Republican star. “He’s basically someone who runs for a position so that he has that as a stepping stone to the next position,” Merkt complained.
Christie and Merkt had run for office together—the state Assembly, 1995—and lost, badly, some said because of Christie’s reputation in their north Jersey district. Christie had been elected to a local office, county freeholder, just a few months before he decided to run for the Assembly, leaving people with the impression that he was a young man in too much of a hurry who didn’t respect the rules and customs of the arena he was playing in.
Worse, he had starred in a campaign ad in which he lied about a beloved neighborhood political figure. He would ultimately lose a libel suit over the matter and be forced to apologize in the local paper.
“He became the U.S. attorney for the same exact thing: as a stepping stone for the next position,” Merkt claimed. “Is there any doubt in your mind that his goal as governor is to set himself up for a run for federal office?”
There was little doubt in anyone’s mind—then.
But then the state Transportation Committee chairman, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, released a trove of documents in January 2014 relating to the unexplained closure of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge the previous September, implicating as orchestrators of the scheme top members of Christie’s Cabinet. Certainty about Christie and the obvious trajectory of his political career evaporated as quickly as it formed when had burst onto the national scene with his defeat of Obama favorite Jon Corzine in 2009.
The following 16 months of Christie’s life would be a series of state and federal investigations of varying degrees of legitimacy, late-night punchlines, budget woes, sinking poll numbers, and attempts to regain the friendly curiosity of the national media who had cooed at him throughout his first term.
In May, two former Christie aides were indicted and one pleaded guilty, as the result of an investigation by U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman. Christie claimed, in an interview with Fox News, that “the U.S. attorney said in his press conference a few weeks ago there will be no further charges in the bridge matter. He said it affirmatively three or four times.” As the Star-Ledger’s Tom Moran points out, Fishman did not say that. He said, in fact, that the investigation is ongoing. “It’s like the end of Downton Abbey,” Fishman joked. “You have to wait for a whole ’nother season.”
It’s as close to “cleared” as Christie is likely to get, and with that as the uncomfortable—if little-noticed—backdrop, he is moving on.
Christie will announce on Tuesday that he is running for president. It’s the outcome anyone who has ever seen, heard, met, worked for, loved, or hated Christie expected of him—and no scandal, real or imagined, blown out of proportion or criminally overlooked, could have prevented him from reaching for this next brass ring.
Christie will deliver his remarks at 10:30 a.m. at Livingston High School, where he was thrice elected president before he graduated, 35 years ago this month. Those with knowledge of the event say they expect it to be held in the round, as his popular town hall meetings are, with his family and friends surrounding him.
Christie’s camp is banking on his ability to outfox the primary competitors who currently trample him in the polls with his communication skills. In the debates in particular, they are hoping voters will see him live up to the campaign slogan—#TellingItLikeItIs—and outshine the less gifted orators onstage.
As recently as Friday, Christie had claimed he had not yet made a decision for 2016 (#TellingItLikeItIs), but the truth is, no one surrounding him has ever had any doubt. They are optimistic, the people he employs, and they claim that they are taking the long view, trying not to get too hung up on any one poll or story. “Not to beat a dead horse,” one source close to the campaign said, “but if you look at this time [in the cycle] in 2008? We would have had Rudy Giuliani vs. Hillary Clinton.”
But the most obvious reason for Christie 2016 is that he has no other option. He is limited to two terms as governor, meaning his options if he didn’t run would be go back to appellate and securities law, or maybe get a TV show. The worst thing that could happen for Christie now that he’s running is defeat, and he can always—especially given his relatively young age of 52—run again.
“He needs a future after 2017,” a former Republican legislator who knew Christie early in his career told me. “It’s the only way for him to remain politically relevant.”
The longtime friend of the governor’s agreed. “He doesn’t see a Plan B,” the friend said. “That’s one thing: Christie always has a Plan B and a Plan C.”
“It’s in his DNA,” a longtime friend of Christie’s told me. Politics is a career for him... He loves his country, he loves his state. He just wants to do this. I dont think there’s any grand, greater reason than that.”
Imagining Christie’s presidential campaign back in 2013, Merkt was characteristically critical. “Chris Christie’s vision is, ‘I Can Win,’” he said. “The question is, where would you lead the nation? There is no trail in his written career as to what he would actually do in higher office.”