WASHINGTON -- Two Chris Christies gave the State of the State address on Tuesday.
The first overflowed with weasel words, the very image of an evasive pol trying to tiptoe past a scandal about his staff’s bullying tactics. The second was an earnest, average-guy practitioner of bipartisan governing: a proud but unassuming character who could give his party a real chance to win back the White House.
The political future of the governor of New Jersey -- and perhaps the Republican Party in 2016 -- rests on which Christie ultimately defines the man.
No one, including Christie, wanted the GOP presidential nomination race to begin this early. But because the Republican field is scattered, weak and tilted far to the right, the comparatively moderate Christie was (and still is) the early frontrunner by default.
That, in turn, has transformed the still-emerging Bridgegate scandal into the unofficial launch of the 2016 race. Accordingly, the galleries at the Trenton statehouse were full and the cable network coverage was wall to wall.
In the first portion of his speech, Questionable Christie was on display. He was careful not to repeat his prior assertions that he had known nothing about the deliberate clogging of traffic leading to the George Washington Bridge as a form of retribution for a local Democratic mayor who refused to play ball.
He used the old Nixonian formulations and carefully chosen legal escape hatches. “Mistakes were clearly made,” he said. He was “ultimately” responsible for those mistakes -- a distant form of blame acceptance. The mistakes were anomalies that did not define him. He and his administration would cooperate with all “appropriate” inquiries.
The word “appropriate” was a loophole as large as a six-lane toll plaza. Look for lots of non-cooperation and taking of the Fifth Amendment by his aides.
Pretty much as soon as Christie finished the scandal non-discussion, the cable networks cut away for commentary and commercials. That was too bad, because the second Chris Christie is just as important as the first.
This Christie is utterly conversant with -- and immersed in -- the details of local and state government, and seems both to relish and to find nobility in the prosaic acts of doing things that matter. He has evidently bullied and threatened many politicians and other officials in his state, including many Democrats. But he has also worked with many Democrats on budget, spending, education and other issues in a way that can only be described as can-do conservatism.
On Tuesday, he spoke with true concern about the embarrassing plight of Newark and Camden, two crime-ridden and educationally bereft cities in which new school superintendents have won praise for their efforts.
He talked movingly about the wisdom of combining drug rehab programs with job training, citing as a model a former addict who saw jail at 16 and went on to pass the bar and become a lawyer.
He left the podium to embrace the man, Craig Hanlon, in an enveloping bear hug of the kind that only a man of Christie’s size could produce. Yes, it was theater; it looked great on TV. Because Christie comes across as an unvarnished guy, it seemed very moving, too.
Christie talked about the need to dial back on state pensions and warned that the state could not serve a new generation unless it did. But at least in this speech, his tone was plain and practical, not accusatory or ideological.
Indeed, there was no discussion of hot-button social issues, no attacks on Obamacare, no disparagement of Washington, no philosophizing.
Some conservative analysts think that the lack of such leaves Christie defenseless. “He has no armor of ideology to protect him,” said conservative author and political consultant Craig Shirley.
But for many voters, that is what makes the New Jersey governor appealing.
Unless his real ideology turns out to be that he will try to destroy anyone in his way, even if that means tying up the GW Bridge.
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