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Opinion: Can Christie Ride Out the Wave of Criticism Over Trump Endorsement?

The governor is a consummate politician: Is he taking a carefully considered risk or making a fatal error?

carl golden
Carl Golden

Gov. Chris Christie -- seasoned pol that he is -- was certainly aware as he deliberated over his decision to endorse Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy that it would generate pushback and accusations of cynical self-serving behavior.

But even Christie must have been surprised at the ferocious pummeling he’s absorbed over the past few days at the hands of other Republicans, as well as those who supported -- some fairly generously -- his own presidential campaign.

Within hours of Christie delivering his endorsement standing at Trump’s side in Texas, the national media pounced, raking up and regurgitating the governor’s many criticisms of Trump, confronting him and demanding he explain his change of heart.

Perhaps the unkindest cut of all came from the Manchester, NH, Union Leader newspaper, which pretty much became a propaganda sheet for Christie after endorsing him in January and going about its daily task of eviscerating the competition --- including Trump.

On Monday, the paper summed up its reaction: “Boy, were we wrong.”

Others expressed shock and dismay that Christie, who’d steered a generally moderate ideological course as New Jersey’s governor in the belief and hope it would appeal to national establishment Republicans, would cast his lot with Trump and associate himself with the billionaire’s caustically outrageous comments about anyone who disagreed with him.

The political response on the home front was hardly any gentler. Former Gov. Christie Whitman scorched the governor, going so far as to pledge to vote for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton rather than support Trump.

Other party leaders chose to remain anonymous while criticizing Christie and predicting that with Trump at the top of the ticket, the party would absorb a shellacking at the polls not seen since Gov. Brendan Byrne walloped Congressman Charles Sandman by three-quarters of a million votes in 1973.

While Christie may have misjudged the ferocity of the reaction to his throwing in with Trump, it was motivated by a desire to regain the relevancy he lost with his dismal finishes in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

He was convinced apparently that he’d followed the appropriate script: He abandoned his campaign rather than risk embarrassment by clinging to an impossible dream; his endorsement meant something to those still in the chase, and he chose the frontrunner who appears well on the way to securing the nomination.

He can claim his as the most significant endorsement Trump has received to this point and, coming as early as it did, places him at the front of the line of those whose endorsements may arrive in the future.

There appeared to be a “what have I got to lose” undercurrent to supporting Trump. He’ll fill a prominent surrogate’s role for the campaign, engaging in what he clearly relishes more than anything else -- zipping around the country doing battle with Democrats while re-establishing contact with national leaders and major donors.

He’s betting that the uproar will fade in time, eventually vanishing in the heat of the campaign, speculation about the next withdrawal, the heightened focus on delegate counts, and whether delegates to the Republican national convention in July will arrive in Cleveland lacking a candidate with a clear majority and opening the way for a brokered convention.

In the meantime, there exists a more immediate short term need to head off an open rebellion at home. His political team is hard at work trying to achieve unanimity among the county chairs and legislative leaders to support the governor’s decision, cajoling, appealing to party loyalty and hinting broadly that their problems and concerns would be looked upon favorably by the administration.

Despite any misgivings they may have concerning the endorsement, party leaders are acutely aware that Christie will be governor for another 22 months and continue to wield the considerable power of the office.

The governor, for instance, appoints judges, prosecutors, county tax board and election board members, and can direct state resources to support a wide and endless array of local programs and projects.

Neither county chairs nor legislators need be reminded of a governor’s clout or of the desirability of remaining on good terms with the administration, even if it’s a lame duck and thoughts of the 2017 gubernatorial election grow in intensity.

For them, though, there is a higher calling: survival.

If they conclude that breaking with the governor serves that higher purpose, they will do so or, at the least, try to remain neutral while concentrating on local concerns.

Without doubt, though, Christie is currently in unfamiliar territory. He can withstand and turn aside partisan sniping, but he’s not been exposed before to the level of criticism from his own party. He’s been able to achieve unanimity, most prominently evidenced by Republicans standing firm to sustain more than 50 gubernatorial vetoes in the last six years.

He may question also whether the backlash over his endorsement is aimed more at Trump and would not have developed had he chosen to support Sens. Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz or Ohio Gov. John Kasich, or whether the uproar masks the release of a pent-up unhappiness with him.

Aside from a testy exchange with reporters this past Monday over his refusal to respond to questions about the endorsement, Christie has shrugged off the criticism and plans to head off to participate in a number of rallies and campaign events in Ohio, Kentucky, and Florida.

The reverberations will continue before dying out, but Christie certainly appears to feel that, on balance, he’s ahead of the game.

Carl Golden served as press secretary for Republican Gov. Thomas Kean for eight years and as communications director for Republican Gov. Christie Whitman for three years. He is currently a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

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