Playing the Numbers

There are few rules out here in Hollywood, but there’s one that all the major studios follow – when things are going badly, when all your deep and serious movies, the ones that win awards, don’t even make back their production cost, and when another sequel like Oceans Thirty-Seven or Rocky LXXXII is laughable or too deeply ironic to make money, make a disaster movie. Audiences love to see things blow up or smash together, or both, and these days, with modern CGI effects, that can be done on the cheap. Blow up the White House or Hoover Dam. As a rule, audiences will pay good money to see that, even if it used to be harder to pull off, or at least more expensive. In the old silent films and up through the sixties, the disaster was most often a massive train wreck, and the studios had to use real trains. Audiences giggle at obvious miniature model trains. That won’t do. Scan these clips of the ten best movie train wrecks of all time – from The General (1927) to The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and beyond. They’re all quite impressive, and what people really came to see, and thus a good investment whatever the cost. When in trouble, do a train wreck, but of course trains are quaint now, so other things must be wrecked, and the current master of that is Roland Emmerich – who will blow up just about anything. There was his Independence Day in 1996, with all those fifteen-mile-wide alien space ships that blow up the Empire State Building and the White House and whatnot, and The Day After Tomorrow from 2004 has those multiple giant tornadoes that wipe out Los Angeles, and that tidal wave that washes away most of Manhattan, followed by it being locked in deep ice. Those movies made big money, but his 2012 (from 2009) and his recent White House Down didn’t. Emmerich may have run out of things to blow up. The whole business was getting absurd, and also becoming a bit of a parlor-game for film geeks. What could Emmerich possibly blow up next? Perhaps he should return to train wrecks. Everyone still loves to see a good train wreck.

That’s why the implosion of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has dominated the news for weeks and will continue to do so. No matter what your politics, this is a train wreck, and it’s impossible to turn away. The movie device had become a general metaphor long ago, and this is one of those amazing train wrecks, almost like in the movies.

In fact, we even get additional apocalyptic special effects:

New Jersey’s Chris Christie faced new storms, literally and figuratively, on the first day of his second term as governor with scandal buffeting his administration and now a top conservative Republican in Virginia saying he should abandon a key GOP post.

All of it, punctuated by a major snowstorm that swept through the Garden State as Christie took the oath of office, put new pressure on him as he contemplates a run for president in 2016 and stands atop polls as the GOP’s leading hope.

Christie did not mention the unfolding scandals in his inauguration speech at the War Memorial in Trenton. Instead he praised how his state came together in his first four years to meet the challenges of the economic recession and Superstorm Sandy, as well as the landslide re-election victory voters gave him last November.

The massive snowstorm was a nice touch. Roland Emmerich would throw that in, if this was a disaster movie, but it isn’t. This is real life. A four-day traffic hell that trapped cars headed to one of the nation’s busiest bridges, supposedly engineered by his gleeful political operatives as payback for something or other, was just stupid, and it’s not clear if Christie approved of that, even if he said he had no clue about what his staff was doing. That may not matter now. That was just unbelievably vindictive and petty, but that’s not the half of it:

Aside from the bridge scandal, Christie’s team faces questions about how the administration handled Superstorm Sandy relief money approved by the federal government.

Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer this week alleged that Christie’s administration hung – or “held hostage” – storm recovery funds for her town on her support for a redevelopment project proposed by a firm, The Rockefeller Group, with ties to the governor. Zimmer said Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno delivered the message in a parking lot last May, saying it came directly from Christie. Guadagno denies the allegation; Zimmer is standing firm, saying she’s already told her story to federal prosecutors. State legislative investigators also want to hear from Zimmer.

Also on Sandy, a federal watchdog is looking into how the state used relief money in promoting the state’s recovery from the October 2012 storm that devastated coastal areas. The Housing and Urban Development inspector general’s office is specifically looking at spending on an ad produced for Jersey Shore marketing purposes that featured Christie and his family.

This really is a train wreck. There’s now a federal prosecutor looking into things. Other New Jersey mayors may now turn on him too, as it’s unlikely that Dawn Zimmer is the only one who was strong-armed, and he’s in no position now to send in his thugs to tell them to shut the hell up or suffer the consequences. He’s been neutered, almost in the veterinary sense. That’s why one prominent conservative in Virginia, the former state Attorney General down there, and the 2013 Republican gubernatorial candidate, Ken Cuccinelli, said Christie should step down from his new role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. What good is this guy now? That chairmanship was supposedly a stepping stone to a White House run, a role where Christie could shine. The whole nation, and particularly the key Republican donors with their hundreds of millions of cold hard cash that doesn’t have to be reported in any way, would come to love the Big Guy from New Jersey – but not now. Ken Cuccinelli would never say such a thing if there weren’t others who think the Big Guy ought to fade into the woodwork, as quickly as possible.

Recent polling of Republicans explains that, as David Weigel summarizes:

In the last Quinnipiac poll, 64 percent of Republicans said Christie would be a “good president.” Only 18 percent disagreed. That’s shrunk to 50 and 22 percent, respectively – a mere 4-point increase in the hard-no number, but a 12-point move from “good president” to “ask me something else.” Conservatives, more skeptical in general of Christie, had given him a 54–26 advantage on the “good president” question. That’s down to 37–24. Again, that’s not huge movement to “no,” just a lot of sliding toward undecided.

His party is slowly abandoning him, and Kevin Drum adds this:

Since I officially think Christie never had much of a chance in 2016 to begin with, I suppose these numbers shouldn’t mean much to me. But Bridgegate really does seem to be moving Christie from the “slim chance” column to the “no chance” column. You need to have a good reason to gamble on someone with Christie’s obvious downsides, and that good reason has always been his appeal to blue-collar America as an honest guy who doesn’t pull his punches. When that morphs into a reputation as a guy with control issues who revels in petty reprisals against his political foes, the jig is up. He’s got nothing left. The folks with money who are looking for a winner are going to start looking elsewhere.

They lost their hero, as Michael Tomasky reports here:

That New York Times story on Sunday, with big boosters like Home Depot’s Kenneth Langone fretting publicly that he really must surround himself with better people (so it’s their fault!), combined with the cable damage-control efforts by the likes of Rudy Giuliani, really shows the extent to which the party big shots have been counting on Christie to save them.

They know deep down that there isn’t a single other figure in their party who can come within yodeling distance of 270 electoral votes – certainly not against Hillary Clinton. Against her, the rest of them max out at around 180, which would constitute the biggest wipeout since Bill Clinton thumped Bob Dole in 1996 (379-159). Imagine Republicans waking up on Wednesday, November 9, 2016 and reading: “Not in 20 years – in fact not since her husband trounced Bob Dole in his anti-climactic reelection campaign – has a Democrat won so lopsided a victory.”

Of course Clinton might not run, and that changes the math. But if you’re a Republican, you have to assume she will. The Seahawks aren’t watching film thinking that Peyton Manning is going to be benched on Feb. 2. And Republicans know that without their man Chris, they’re finished. (I suppose there’s a Jeb Bush contingent – which pointedly does not include his mother – but recent polls show Jeb trailing Hillary almost as much as the others.) Eight more years in the wilderness…

Chris Christie in not only a walking train wreck in and of himself, he’s now turned the whole Republican Party into a train wreck about to happen, although Tomasky argues that the problem isn’t really the Big Guy:

The fact that the GOP establishment needs to come face-to-face with is that they have no one to blame for this but themselves. They’ve reached the point where they almost have to have a Northeasterner like Christie to run for president, just as they had to settle for Romney last time. They’ve let their party go so far off the deep end that practically no Republican officeholder from any other region of the country could appeal to enough moderates in enough purple and blue states to win back the territory the party ceded to the Democrats in the last two elections.

Running a ticket of Ted Nugent and Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson, now that Jefferson Davis and Margaret Mitchell are dead, is not an option, because the numbers don’t work:

Remember: the Republicans come into the next presidential election with 206 reliable electoral votes from states their nominees have won at least four of the last six elections. The Democrats’ corresponding number is 257 (just 13 shy of the victory threshold). These tallies leave five states on the table: Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada. And I’m not even sure if, with Clinton in the race, if the last three could even be called purple anymore. The Republicans have a lot of territory to reclaim.

They were, and I suppose still are, hoping that Christie could win it back for two reasons. First, and more obviously, he’d give them back the White House. But second, a Christie presidential win could paper over the profound and disturbing problems with today’s GOP. This is a party deeply in need of an internal thrashing of heads to pull it out of loony-land and back toward the center. Republican grandees know this, of course, but they’d much rather not have to go through this civil war. Indeed, the war could be cleansing enough that the party splits into two. Only Christie can save them from that possibility. The party would just become whatever Christie wanted it to be, and the Big Conversations could all be shelved.

Tomasky, then, just doesn’t see them giving up on Christie easily, which might work out, or not, but is what we can expect:

Christie can enjoy the benefit in these next weeks and months of becoming a more sympathetic figure to the hard right than he’s ever been, because all he has to do to please that crowd is carry on about how the East Coast liberal media are trying to do him in. And it may just work.

But ultimately, facts are facts. And if the facts finish him off, and the GOP is stuck with Cruz-Rubio-Paul, or even a right-wing governor like Scott Walker, the establishment will be reaping what it’s spent the Obama years sowing: a party that cares more about feeding its base’s fever-dreams than being nationally electable. And that’s where things stand, as Christie begins a term that there’s a sporting chance he may not even be able to finish.

This is the ultimate political train wreck, and it’s hard to tear your eyes away. One day it will probably be a Major Motion Picture as they say out here – without actual trains of course. But this has to be, as Ed Kilgore sees things:

The Establishment types really just have two choices: they can try to keep Christie out of the deep ditch by minimizing his problems and hope he can put it all in the rear-view mirror quickly, or they can take a long look at their other potential champions, probably settling on (and settling for) Paul Ryan, a dubious commodity indeed. So they’ll pursue the first path as long as it’s open to them.

All they need to do is control the damage, but Kilgore thinks that’s a fool’s errand:

Christie needs to be riding high in general election polls before “the base” will go along with him instead of the red-meat-peddling ideologues they really want. So the Establishment sure has its work cut out for it, and it’s unclear how much Christie himself will be able to help them.

In short, one train wreck leads to another, which leads to total panic, and Jason Easley provides the details:

The results of the latest Quinnipiac poll should turn the panic into a full blown inferno as Hillary Clinton has opened up an eight point lead on Christie. The December Quinnipiac poll was one the few that was friendly to the Republican cause, so the GOP has been beating this poll into the ground. But the January poll revealed that Christie is being immensely damaged by the scandals.

Christie went from being in a statistical tie with Clinton last month to trailing the former Sec. of State 46%-38% today. The scandals are destroying Christie with Independents. He has gone from leading Clinton 47%-32% to trailing 41%-40%. The percentage of respondents who think that he would make a good president has plunged from 49% in December to 35% today.

Republicans know that they don’t have another candidate that comes close to Clinton in any way. The same Quinnipiac poll shows Clinton leading Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Jeb Bush all by double digits. The Republican establishment is behind Christie. The big Republican money is behind Christie. The RNC changed the party’s nominating process to benefit Christie, and now the New Jersey governor is being undone by scandals that highlight his temperament issues.

The problem is Christie’s image and reputation, so it’s a marketing problem or more precisely a branding problem:

His brand as a blue collar, tough-talking governor who gets things done has been replaced by the image of a petty vindictive bully. Once a candidate has been negatively defined for the electorate, it is nearly impossible to change that image. It is this reality that Republicans have yet to face.

Chris Christie is damaged goods just like Mitt Romney was damaged goods. The Republican establishment may go through with their plan to nominate Christie. If they do, they will find out that it doesn’t matter how the investigations turn out. The damage has already been done, and Republicans may end up stuck with another fatally flawed candidate who has virtually no chance of winning.

The idea of Christie beating Clinton has always seemed like a dubious Republican pipe dream, but never did the GOP think that they would be spending 2014 watching their only viable candidate go up in smoke.

There’s also a new Pew poll that shows that Christie’s unfavorable numbers are way up:

Last January, following Christie’s visible role in Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, favorable opinions outnumbered unfavorable ones by more than two-to-one. Today, in the wake of a scandal involving highway lane closures that led to massive traffic jams in northern New Jersey, nearly as many offer an unfavorable assessment of Christie as a favorable one…

This is a slow-moving train wreck, but Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog, looks at the cross-tabs in the Pew poll and isn’t so sure about that:

His unfavorable numbers have gone up by double digits in every group – except (naturally) Republicans.

But notice what’s happened to his favorable ratings: they’re way down among college graduates, but up 6 among high school grads and dropouts. They’re up among senior citizens (even as they’ve dropped significantly in the 50-64 age group) – and there’s a tiny uptick in the 18-29 group). And they’re unchanged among Republicans and independents.

Some of this is probably the result of small subsample sizes. But the overall pattern is there – Christie fans are still fans.

And please note that Christie may be a “bipartisan” and a “moderate,” but he has more fans among Tea Party types than among non-teabagger Republicans – a testament to the power of the first impressions conveyed by Fox when it retransmitted all those early trash-talk videos…

There’s a constituency for a thug and a bully. It’s not large enough to win a national election, but it’s there, and they’re still happy with the guy, or even happier. The liberal media is picking on him. He must be okay, so Steve M has a prediction:

Christie’s going to survive, and he’s going to be competitive in 2016. He’s in trouble only if he’s directly, unambiguously linked to any of his scandals — already it’s widely accepted, even by members of the so-called liberal media who should know better, that Christie is an unfortunate innocent tragically victimized by an overzealous staff. He seems smart enough not to have ever had his name on an incriminating memo, email, or text. So yeah, he’ll be fine.

No surprise, of course – these days, no one at the very top is ever at fault for anything. Ask Rupert Murdoch. Ask Jamie Dimon.

That’s actually the idea now. In an interview with Matt Bai Christie actually compared himself to Dimon:

You know, the fact is, as I said at the press conference, Matt, if someone doesn’t tell you the truth, there is often very little you can do in reaction to that. So, no, anyone who would say that has no appreciation for what it’s like to be governor or, frankly, chief executive of any kind of major organization.

No one understands the rich and powerful – it’s so sad. Jamie Dimon didn’t have any idea what his traders in London were doing, and thus JPMorgan-Chase lost eight or ten billion dollars in an instant, and broke all sorts of laws, but life is hard at the top. People sometimes lie to you, and you can’t do a thing about that, but what happens next is not your fault at all. He and Jamie Dimon know that. Why can’t anyone else understand what it’s like at the top? It’s just not fair. Jesus was reviled by some too, you know. No, Christie didn’t go there, but give him time.

Actually this all should have disappeared from the news a week ago – it’s all New Jersey politics, inside-baseball stuff, and 2016 is a long way off. The Republicans may nominate some stunningly effective candidate in two years, someone no one had yet considered, someone charismatic, with wide appeal, someone who the Tea Party crowd loves and everyone on MSNBC thinks is wonderful too. But that’s not a train wreck, which is what we have right now, and everyone loves train wrecks – and then the movie is over, you head home to feed the cat and get some sleep, and you forget the whole thing. After all, Gary Hart was a train wreck too. No one remembers him. Someday Chris Christie may be that famous. If you’ve seen one train wreck you’ve seen them all.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Playing the Numbers

  1. Rick says:

    “Indeed, the [Republican civil] war could be cleansing enough that the party splits into two. Only Christie can save them from that possibility. The party would just become whatever Christie wanted it to be, and the Big Conversations could all be shelved.”

    Yes, but probably only temporarily. Since Christie would probably lose in the general election, the Republican insurgency — assuming they don’t just throw up their hands and give up trying — would once again sic their fury on a party that had obviously lost another White House bid simply because it had refused to listen to them. At which point, I can see them then having two alternatives; either (1) taking over the party completely in a McGovernesque coup, or (2) splitting off from the party altogether, like they did from the Whigs in the 1850s.

    “2016 is a long way off. The Republicans may nominate some stunningly effective candidate in two years, someone no one had yet considered, someone charismatic, with wide appeal, someone who the tea Party crowd loves and everyone on MSNBC thinks is wonderful too.”

    Hey, as uncomfortable as I am admitting this, but given the modern custom of election seasons being two years, and maybe even four years long, this simple truth should stand out:

    2016 is not a long way off, the campaign of 2016 is here! Want proof? If it’s not already here, why are we all paying so much attention to the otherwise minor shenanigans of the governor of New Jersey?

    And based on the experience of recent election cycles, I would add to this that, when it comes to who will eventually become the candidate of each party, there will be very few surprises from here on out — that is, whoever will be chosen is already known to us as a possible candidate.

    And that means, to anybody who thinks they still have time to throw in their hat? Forget it. It’s later than you think.

    Rick

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