Real-live voters won't cast ballots in Iowa or New Hampshire for another two years, but another primary campaign is already underway that will have a major impact on the presidential election in 2016. Call it the Media Primary.
Bridge-gate or Bridge-nado -- or however you label Gov. Chris Christie's traffic troubles in New Jersey -- is a classic example of how that primary works. When candidates get serious about running for president, the level of press scrutiny escalates enormously, and for good reason.
The country deserves to know how those aspirants have behaved in the past -- the judgment, the temperament and the values they've displayed in both their public and private lives. Voters can obtain this vital information only through intensive and extensive media efforts. And any candidate who cannot handle that level of accountability is clearly not fit to be president.
Former Gov. Tom Kean of New Jersey raised this precise point when he told the Newark Star-Ledger that Christie will be "under a microscope" as he prepares to run for president. (The Washington Post still ranks Christie as the most likely Republican nominee.)
"Whatever flaws he has -- and he has some -- will be magnified," predicted Kean.
Those flaws have all been on display during Bridge-gate, notes Kean: arrogance, pugnacity and a "dangerous" determination to choose advisors who will never "say no to him."
Now, Kean is not unbiased; he and Christie have quarreled over the governor's treatment of Kean's son, a state legislator. But he accurately framed the challenge facing Christie when he told the Washington Post: "On the one hand, I think he's got a lot to offer. I think he's the most able politician since Bill Clinton. On the other hand, you look at those other qualities and ask, do you really want that in your president?"
We have covered a dozen presidential elections, and even the most savvy and seasoned politicians have no idea how much hotter and brighter the spotlight gets once you approach the Oval Office. Look at the Republican field in 2012: Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann's campaigns were over almost before they began; Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman were gone a week after New Hampshire.
Perry, a three-term governor of Texas, exemplifies the rigors of the Media Primary. Once he became a top-line candidate, the Washington Post dispatched a team of reporters to investigate his background. They discovered a vile racial slur painted at the entrance to a hunting camp leased by his family.
Would the Post have assigned that team to probe Perry's past -- or put the story of the hunting camp on the front page -- if he'd stayed in Austin? Obviously not.
Flaws are not just magnified during the Media Primary; they are judged by a different standard. Democrat Gary Hart's campaign imploded in 1988 after he denied rumors of infidelity, taunted reporters to follow him, and continued his extramarital escapades anyway. That sort of recklessness might be acceptable for a senator, but not a president.
Which brings us back to Christie. Conservative media critics are complaining that liberal outlets like MSNBC are hyping the scandal because they fear Christie is "the biggest threat to the Democratic Party," in the words of Fox commentator Bill O'Reilly. Liberals accuse Fox of down-playing the story for exactly the same reason. Both sides care so much because they know the importance of the Media Primary.
O'Reilly has a point. Democrats do worry that a pragmatic governor of a blue state is a far more threatening rival than, say, a hardline senator from a red state (see Cruz, Ted). And the "Democratic noise machine," as Politico calls it, has made a concerted effort to keep the story going.
"It fits into his pattern of bullying, attacking, pushing people around," Eddie Vale, a Democratic strategist, told Politico.
But Bridge-gate would be a legitimate story even without the "noise machine." It's a made-for-TV natural: an outsized character facing a juicy scandal everyone can understand. Few voters care about trade rules or tax codes, but they sure as heck know from traffic jams.
For years, Christie benefited greatly from being next to New York, the center of the media universe. Now that nearness has become a nemesis. Every news executive knows where the George Washington Bridge is.
The most important question, however, is the one posed by Kean: does America "really want" a man with Christie's virtues and vices in the Oval Office? Without the Media Primary, voters won't know enough to give an informed answer.