Embattled New Jersey Governor Chris Christie went on the offensive in a speech in Chicago today, challenging some in his own party on what Republicans should stand for as they prepare for the 2016 presidential election.
“I thought political parties were formed in order to win elections, not to be debating societies, not to be academic institutions to debate the great esoteric issues of the day,” Christie said at the Economic Club of Chicago. “When you win, you get to govern. When you get to govern, you get to make change.”
Christie is seeking to change the conversation around him from one focused on the furor raised by politically motivated lane closures and traffic jams last September on the George Washington Bridge created by his administration.
The controversy has meant that Christie has had to get used to some in his party shunning photo opportunities with him. That included three of the four Republicans running for governor in Illinois, a group that faces a primary in five weeks.
“The last six weeks haven’t been the most of enjoyable of my life, I can guarantee you,” Christie said during his appearance. “On the other hand, the fact is that we need to do our work.”
At the friendly venue where he was interviewed by Greg Brown, chief executive officer of Schaumburg, Illinois-based Motorola Solutions Inc. (MSI:US), Christie reflected briefly on the scandal surrounding him.
“Some people who worked for me made some significant mistakes in judgment,” he said, adding that he was “extraordinarily” disappointed that those he’d trusted had “made such bad judgments and had not told the truth.”
Christie fired some of his advisers when news surfaced early this year that the traffic snarl was politically motivated, and today said he’ll take additional steps, if an internal review deems that appropriate.
“If there’s more action that needs to be taken, I’ll take it,” he said. “But I don’t think that it will curtail for the long haul a second-term agenda because I think the public in New Jersey won’t tolerate it.”
Speaking about 2016, Christie said that while Republicans might have been able to attribute their 2008 presidential loss as a “fluke,” that isn’t possible after Democrat Barack Obama won re-election in 2012.
“Our party’s priority should be on winning,” he said. “Not winning the argument, winning the election.”
Christie said the party needs to nominate someone who “can be an authentic, believable spokesman for a new era in America.”
On the issue of income inequality, a theme Obama is honing for Democrats to spotlight in the 2014 midterms and the next presidential race, Christie advised his party to refine its rebuttal.
“The debate that needs to be had between the two parties needs to be: Do we want equality of income, or greatness of opportunity?” he said. “The opportunity for greatness excites the American people much more.”
He also praised the limited government Tea Party movement.
“Every political party has elements within it that present challenges,” he said. “I believe that the Tea Party, in the main, represents some of the best of Republican principles: lower taxes, smaller government, restrained government.”
Christie’s attempt to regain momentum toward a possible 2016 presidential bid comes as some Republican officials in Florida and Texas skipped public appearances with him as he raised money for the Republican Governors Association. He was recently named the group’s chairman.
Democrats have pounced on the bridge story, seeking to tarnish a potential presidential contender as well as other Republicans who appear with him.
“With every state he visits, Republicans are running for the hills,” said former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, who headlined a Democratic National Committee news conference in Chicago today. “It’s time for Governor Christie to stop the condescension, the attacks and the bluster and to answer the questions.”
Illinois state Senator Bill Brady, one of the Republicans running for governor, opted to appear with Christie today while fellow state Senator Kirk Dillard, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford and venture capitalist Bruce Rauner didn’t. Rauner met privately with Christie, said a Republican familiar with the governor’s schedule who wasn’t authorized to discuss it publicly.
“He’s had some stumbles, but I think he’s handled them appropriately,” Brady told reporters. “He’s a delight to campaign with and I wouldn’t have any concerns at all.”
Christie is traveling nationwide to raise millions for the RGA, an assignment that -- before the furor over the bridge lane closures erupted -- his allies saw as helping him boost his national standing ahead of the 2016 White House race. His stops in the Chicago area today include a fundraising dinner at the home of Ken Griffin, founder of Chicago-based hedge-fund firm Citadel LLC.
The RGA downplayed the apparent reluctance of most of the Republican gubernatorial candidates in Illinois to publicly appear with Christie.
“The events Governor Christie is attending are on behalf of the RGA to raise funds for the RGA,” said the group’s spokesman, Jon Thompson. “The RGA usually doesn’t get involved in primaries, which is why the events were not originally designed to feature any candidates.”
That will change once a Republican nominee is selected to take on Democratic Governor Pat Quinn, Thompson said.
“We have no doubt the RGA will be highly involved in the Illinois governor’s race in the nine months to come, and will work closely with the eventual GOP nominee,” he said.
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