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First Thoughts: Benghazi vs. the Bridge

Benghazi vs. the Bridge… The differences between the stories as it relates to 2016… NBC/Marist poll: Has Christie weathered the storm? Or are there bigger problems ahead?... In trailing Clinton by 13 points, Christie’s electability card looks a bit weaker… So do two other 2016 pillars for Christie… Today’s bridge-scandal news: 1) new subpoenas are coming, 2) Christie administration hires prominent law firm to assist with internal review… And don’t expect Obama to announce major NSA reforms.

Hillary Clinton and Gov. Chris Christie 's perception problems are fundamentally different in nature and potential damage.

 *** Benghazi vs. the Bridge: With yesterday’s Senate Intelligence Committee report on Benghazi, two stories that could potentially last well into 2016 were in the news -- Benghazi for Hillary Clinton and the George Washington Bridge for Chris Christie. As NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reported on “Nightly News” last night, “The Senate Intelligence Committee has categorically blamed the State Department for ignoring multiple warnings and failing to provide adequate security.” And here’s the New York Times headline: “Benghazi Attack Called Avoidable in Senate Report.” But there are some significant differences between the two stories as far as political implications go for the two potential candidates in question. First, Benghazi has been litigated for almost a year and a half (in the 2012 election, in independent reports, at congressional hearings), while the bridge story is really just a week old. And what the Senate Intelligence Report found is pretty much what we thought we already knew -- the State Department didn’t provide enough security, there was no advance knowledge of an imminent attack, and the U.S. military was not in position to respond in enough time. But what this report didn’t find: evidence of a cover-up and more importantly for Clinton, evidence that she directed one. A second difference is that Hillary Clinton has 20 years on the national stage (including a thoroughly litigated presidential bid in ’08) to balance out a bad story, while Christie is still making his first impression on the national stage. And of course, a third difference is that no Democrats believe the worst about Hillary (and might try to take advantage of it) when it comes to Benghazi, while the same isn’t true for Christie. Plenty of Republicans, particularly conservatives who were never enamored with Christie in the first place, do believe the worst about Christie and the bridge.

Getty Images file photo

Democratic presidential hopeful New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at her primary election night celebration at the Charleston Civic Center in Charleston, West Virginia on May 13, 2008.

*** The danger of overreaching: Benghazi also provides a lesson to Democrats as they try to make political hay out of Christie’s bridge scandal: don’t overreach. The top conclusion about Benghazi was that there was an absence of leadership coming from the State Department, and that’s bad enough of a story for Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration. But Republicans and conservatives have hurt their cause by trying to make the story more than that -- a conspiracy or a cover-up. And so instead of simply letting the facts tell a bad story about Clinton and calling into question her leadership abilities, too many of her detractors have claimed a more sinister storyline. And when that storyline is debunked, it’s made the original bad story look less harmful in the public. (Then again, Clinton antagonists have overreached with both Bill and Hillary for years, only to see the public respond the same way.) Christie’s folks are hoping that, at some point, his Democratic detractors over reach; it would actually help him weather this storm and even rally some skeptical Republicans to his side.

*** Has Christie weathered the storm? Or are there bigger problems ahead? When you look at the headlines of our new NBC/Marist poll, it appears that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has so far weathered the bridge-scandal storm that has rocked his administration. Nearly 70 percent of Americans say the scandal hasn’t changed their opinion of Christie. What’s more, pluralities of respondents 1) believe he’s telling the truth here, and 2) view him as a strong leader rather than as a bully. So far, so good, right? Well, not exactly. When you dig deeper into the poll, you realize he has some potentially big problems -- both regarding this scandal and as it relates to 2016. For starters, people are paying attention; a combined 71% say they either know “a lot” or “some” about the story. In addition, a third of Americans say he isn’t telling the truth here, which is never a good situation for a politician who’s beginning to introduce himself to the American public. And then there’s Christie’s fav/unfav number in the poll -- an upside-down 28%-30% score (compared with Hillary Clinton’s net-positive 50%-38% and President Obama’s net-negative 41%-48%). We’ve looked back at all the past national polling on Christie (including in our NBC/WSJ poll), and this is the first time we’ve seen him with a net-negative fav/unfav score.  

*** Christie’s electability card looks a bit weaker: Then there’s Christie’s early head-to-head matchup against Hillary Clinton: He trails her by 13 points, 50%-37%. In the same poll a month ago, Clinton’s lead was a mere three points, 48%-45%. Now remember, it’s very early in the 2016 race. And it’s very possible that Clinton-vs.-Christie won’t even be your general-election contest.  But for Christie, this 13-point deficit is problematic. Why? Because his top selling point for 2016 would be that he’s the most electable Republican. “We are not a debating society,” Christie told RNC members last August. “We are a political operation that needs to win.” That’s what his entire re-election victory last year was about, too -- showing that he could win by 20-plus points in blue New Jersey and demonstrating that he got half the Latino vote. But if other polls show him significantly trailing Clinton, that electability card might not be as powerful with Republican donors and voters. Why should conservatives hold their nose for someone that can’t win? The only way you can get conservative skeptics of Christie to get on board is if he truly looks like a winner. That’s why these very early polls are actually more damaging to him than many of you may think.

*** So do two other 2016 pillars: And that brings us to an even bigger to point to make about Christie one week into this scandal story. The three pillars of his appeal in a 2016 contest -- electability, a record of bipartisanship outside of Washington, and the reputation of being a straight-shooter -- all look more damaged than they did a week ago. On the electability front, there’s our new NBC/Marist poll showing him trailing Hillary by double digits. On bipartisanship, as we pointed out yesterday, it’s now harder for Christie to play that card. All an opponent has to say is, “Chris Christie’s top aides created a traffic jam to punish a Democratic mayor who didn’t endorse him.” And when it comes to being a straight-shooter, the poll finds that a third of Americans don’t think he’s telling the truth in this story.

*** New subpoenas, Christie administration hires prominent law firm to assist with internal review: By the way, there are two pieces of news to report on the bridge scandal. First, new subpoenas could be coming as soon as today. And two, NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell reports that the Christie administration has hired the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher to assist with the internal review of lane closings. “Gov. Christie made clear last week that he will conduct an internal review to uncover the facts surrounding the lane closures in Fort Lee. His administration is fully cooperating with the U.S. Attorney inquiry and other appropriate inquiries and requests for information,” Christie’s office says.

*** Don’t expect Obama to announce major NSA reforms: Lastly, a point to make about President Obama’s speech tomorrow on NSA reforms: If you’re looking for the president to announce major reforms, you’re going to be disappointed. “President Obama will issue new guidelines on Friday to curtail government surveillance, but will not embrace the most far-reaching proposals of his own advisers and will ask Congress to help decide some of the toughest issues, according to people briefed on his thinking,” the Times reported yesterday. Bottom line: If there are going to be major changes, Obama isn’t going to do it himself. And the more cynical-minded might look at the president’s approach as simply punting this back to Congress, knowing full well there is NOT A CONSENSUS in Congress to make more significant reforms. This might be a case where the White House is secretly happy this Congress can’t agree on much.

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