GWEN IFILL: So, who knew a traffic scandal could attract this kind of national attention?
For a look at how Chris Christie became the country’s most closely watched governor, we turn to Stuart Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report and Roll Call, and Michael Scherer, Washington bureau chief for TIME magazine. He wrote the magazine’s November cover story on Christie.
So was this two-hour tour de force today, Michael, vintage Chris Christie?
MICHAEL SCHERER, TIME: It was. I think he did very well. He did what he had to do, which was to come out, to be contrite, to take responsibility, but also to distance himself from what is clearly horrific acts of public service that took place.
The question now is whether the facts as they continue to come out — we don’t know the full story now — match what Christie told the people of New Jersey and the people of the Republican Party who will be deciding the 2016 nominee. And if they don’t, if there continue to be drips and drips of information that come out, Christie is going to continue to have a big problem.
GWEN IFILL: What do you think, Stu? Is this — what — what do his performance today and this whole — the whole unraveling of the unraveling of this scandal tell about his governing skills?
STUART ROTHENBERG, The Rothenberg Political Report: Yes.
Well, I think his performance was quite good. He was trite. And when was the last time you…
GWEN IFILL: You mean contrite.
STUART ROTHENBERG: Contrite. Contrite.
STUART ROTHENBERG: And when was the last time you associated the governor with being embarrassed and humiliated?
I mean, that’s something for him to say that. This is a guy we think of as — as sometimes a bully even. But he was humiliated and embarrassed and contrite.
You know, I think exactly — what Mike said is exactly right. Today was a very good performance. I think the governor seemed sympathetic. I think he seemed like he was shocked and saddened. He said that repeatedly, he was saddened. The question is what happens tomorrow.
Democrats are not going to let this sit. I’m already getting e-mails from Democratic members of the assembly and from Democratic talking heads, saying, oh, the governor needs to come clean.
GWEN IFILL: But here’s the thing that seemed to be missing in that press conference, which I couldn’t take my eyes off of either, and that is that, even though he was contrite and sorry, he was sorry that he was being lied to by his staff that he trusted, not necessarily for the underlying actions.
And so the question remains, do the people who work for him work for a man who they had reason to believe would approve of such a thing?
MICHAEL SCHERER: Well, there are two storylines about Chris Christie now.
And assuming he continues to move towards running in 2016, we are going to hear a lot more about both of them. For Chris Christie, he is a straight-talking, no-nonsense, non-blow-dried, tell-it-like-it-is guy.
GWEN IFILL: He almost said that word for word today.
MICHAEL SCHERER: Yes, he says it all the time.
For the Democrats, he’s a bully. And that is the story they want to get out there. Now, it is clear from the governor’s record that there are plenty of times as governor where his office has exacted retribution on people who haven’t — in government, people who haven’t voted along with the governor. That happens a lot in government. Most people in government do that. There are ways of punishing people.
The difference in this scandal is the retribution was exacted not on an official, but on the people of the city of Fort Lee, people getting on a road. It’s a big difference to delay someone’s judicial nominee, between doing that and actually stopping people from their daily commute.
GWEN IFILL: And everybody gets bad traffic.
MICHAEL SCHERER: Yes.
And so I think the question is whether, you know, these two competing narratives, which develops, and, really, the facts will tell us. I mean, Chris Christie is still very much an unvetted candidate on the presidential level. And there’s a lot more to come. And how he weathers it — I mean, I think he did very well today, but he is sort of at the mercy of the fact pattern that develops.
STUART ROTHENBERG: This is not a one-day story or one-week story or a one-month story. This is going to go on for an extended period of time.
GWEN IFILL: Take us back.
Explain, Stu, why Chris Christie is considered to be such a formidable 2016 candidate.
STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, I think some people consider him to be more formidable than I do, actually.
I have written that I think that — I’m not — well, I think he would be a great general election candidate. I’m just not sure he can get there. I think there are parts of the country who will –Republicans around the country, particularly the South and parts of the West, who will — the more they see him, the less they will like.
But, look, he just was elected and reelected easily in a Democratic state. He has a reputation as somebody who is not your typical politician. That is a wonderful image to have these days. And when you look at the early polls, he’s very well-known. So, shockingly, he tends to be at the front, top of the polls. So all those things make him a very interesting figure.
And just personally, he is an interesting guy. And I think that gets him a lot of attention.
GWEN IFILL: But is he the kind of candidate who the conservative Republicans don’t like because he seems a little bit too blue state to them and that the Democrats don’t like because they fear his electoral capability?
MICHAEL SCHERER: Well, part…
GWEN IFILL: Enemies on all sides.
MICHAEL SCHERER: Partisan Democrats don’t like him, but he actually won a significant share of Democratic voters in New Jersey in his reelection.
So he has a proven ability to get Democratic, independent votes, at least in New Jersey. Conservative Republicans don’t like him, but it’s also worth saying that those are sort of ideological purist Republicans who are ascendant right now in the party. But it’s also true that if you look at most of the recent cycles, the eventual nominee of the Republican Party has significant problems with the ideological core base.
I mean, Mitt Romney wasn’t a purist. John McCain wasn’t a purist. And so there is a path for Christie. It’s going to be a messy…
STUART ROTHENBERG: Yes, but they campaigned to some extent as purists. Certainly, Mitt Romney went out of his way to emphasize his conservative credentials.
MICHAEL SCHERER: Yes.
STUART ROTHENBERG: Now, the purists didn’t always believe that.
MICHAEL SCHERER: Right.
STUART ROTHENBERG: They distrusted him. The question is, will Chris Christie — I will use a controversial word — will he pander to them?
MICHAEL SCHERER: Right.
STUART ROTHENBERG: And if so, doesn’t that undercut his entire…
MICHAEL SCHERER: And, actually, I think that’s the key to Christie in the next days, weeks, months, years. He has to be able to maintain his greatest asset now, which is this idea that he just is who he is.
And he said in the press conference today, I am who I am. I am not a bully. The first part, he said lots of times before. But, “I’m not a bully,” I can see that showing up in attack ads.
GWEN IFILL: Is he a pragmatist or a visionary, though, in this kind of — he is the kind of guy who didn’t really — said, I don’t know what a traffic study is, which goes way down in the weeds of this story.
On the other hand, he doesn’t seem like someone who has an overarching view of how the world should be.
MICHAEL SCHERER: Right.
He doesn’t — he doesn’t market himself as an ideologue or a visionary. He markets himself as a pragmatist who gets stuff done. And he is going to say to the American people, we have a lot of problems now. You are really upset with how things are going in this country. I have proven in New Jersey I can get stuff done. I’m going to get stuff done for you.
That is his message.
STUART ROTHENBERG: And this is why, as a governor, he has an advantage, possibly, is he doesn’t get caught in the Washington, D.C., ideological weeds.
He can say, it’s about delivering it. It’s about getting — getting my — from point A to point B. Now, they had a problem from getting it from point A to point B, so he has got to deal with the. But it’s about the nuts and bolts of government.
GWEN IFILL: So, he recovers after this, unless what?
STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, unless more things come out that suggest he didn’t tell the truth, he knew things that he suggests he didn’t, that somehow he was part of the plan of this, any of those kinds of things.
MICHAEL SCHERER: I think the issue is this idea that he’s a bully, that he goes beyond what is acceptable to get his way.
And even on this issue, on this traffic sure, but if there are other scandals that come out in which there’s documentation of him exacting retribution that people see as beyond the pale…
GWEN IFILL: That’s what people will be watching for.
MICHAEL SCHERER: … it will be a big problem.
GWEN IFILL: Michael Scherer of “TIME” magazine, Stu Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report, thank you both.
MICHAEL SCHERER: Thank you.
STUART ROTHENBERG: Thank you.