If anyone doubts that the 2016 presidential election campaign has begun already despite a lack of announced candidates, the furor surrounding the leading prospects of both major parties should dispel any such notion.
Both Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and former first lady, senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton have found out quickly what it means to be the center of attention in the scramble to replace Barack Obama. Both are embroiled in controversy that probably would have gone away otherwise.
A scathing congressional report that raises questions about Clinton’s management, or lack of it, of the incident in Benghazi that took the life of Libyan Ambassador Christ Stevens and three of his security detail left little doubt that this would remain an issue in any decision to try once again to become the first woman to win a presidential nomination. Clinton said at the time of the tragedy that she, as the State Department’s chief, would have to assume responsibility. The report re-emphasized as much.
As for Christie, the outrageous actions of some of his chief advisers to punish an obscure Democratic Party mayor who they thought should have endorsed the Republican governor’s re-election has raised lingering questions about his viability as a national candidate. The four-day traffic jam at the George Washington Bridge that resulted from his aides’ juvenile dirty trick won’t go away easily, despite Christie’s lengthy contention that he knew nothing about the event and that when he was shown the evidence immediately fired the culprits.
That’s all well and good, but at least two official investigations are under way to determine the exact responsibility for this silly but expensive travesty, and one can expect any number of lawsuits from those who claim to have suffered from the lane closings.
More important, Christie will need somehow to overcome that kernel of doubt about his administrative honesty that the entire mess raised.
History is replete with examples that testify to the fact that being the “front runner” early in the race for the presidency is probably not the place to be.
Clinton seems less vulnerable given her demonstrated and highly praised work at State. Her marks in the four years leading up to Benghazi have been as high as anyone in that difficult post in recent memory, and until the Libyan affair she had managed to keep herself out of controversy. She also has established her independence from her former president husband, an accomplishment that eluded her in 2008. Other factors include the perception that she offers the best chance for a woman to become the nation’s chief executive and that she is a far more known quantity, an element that would give her an advantage over Christie.
Christie has little of the same insulation. He has been on the scene only a short time and has made his reputation on being a sort of Jersey Shore tough guy who takes little of what he considers guff. That is, of course, until the bridge matter, when he was uncharacteristically contrite.
The governor also must face another obstacle. His party’s viable right where any number of presidential wannabes lurk. Some, like Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, have even moved more toward the center, but still maintain conservative credentials that most Republican hopefuls need to be viable for the nomination.
Much of this will shake down in the next months until the November midterm elections. Clinton’s backers are already raising money and Christie is expected to offer his campaign services to GOP candidates in the congressional races.
The fact is that the race already has begun and what occurs in the fall will decide the viability of both candidates and several more who will begin the long trek to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in earnest once that is over.
Will Christie and Clinton still be around? I’m betting they are, but just how potent depends on how well they overcome Fort Lee and Benghazi.
Dan Thomasson is a nationally syndicated columnist.