Chris Christie, the embattled Governor of New Jersey, will never be President of the United States. This statement would have been grandiose just a few short months ago, when the infamously brusque Christie was widely viewed as the GOP’s most dominant potential candidate for a 2016 run at the Presidency.
How quickly the winds of politics can change. The storm began, as they often do, with just the whisper of wind. There was an odd lane closure of the George Washington Bridge for several days in mid-September. These lanes connect the town of Fort Lee, New Jersey, to New York City, and the closure resulted in a severe traffic situation that turned thousands of residents’ daily commute into a traffic nightmare. The official explanation given by the Port Authority, an administrative entity jointly run by appointees from New York and New Jersey, was that the closures were part of a traffic study.
At first Christie denied that there was anything of substance to the story with his trademark sarcasm and brusqueness. He defended his administration and accused Democrats of playing politics and making a mountain out of a mole hill. He even joked that he was personally on the scene moving traffic cones on the bridge. Christie employed his Jersey-style humor to good effect, and was able to diminish and deflect much of the growing momentum for investigation.
As details emerged, however, it became clear that the normal process did appear to have been subverted, and that staff members and appointees of Governor Christie were involved in what appeared to be unlawful activity and a coverup. A narrative began to emerge that the lane closures were employed as a deliberate act of political retribution against the Democratic Mayor of Fort Lee for failing to endorse Christie during his re-election campaign.
Emails and texts began to emerge that painted a picture of the situation as something much darker than a misguided traffic study, and soon Christie was forced to distance himself from the individuals implicated in the scandal, which was difficult, because they were among his closest staff. Bill Baroni, the Deputy Executive Director of the Port Authority and a Christie appointee, resigned amidst allegations of abuse, as did David Wildstein, another Christie appointee who worked under Baroni.
The political axe has also fallen on Bridget Kelley, the Deputy Chief of Staff for the Christie administration, who was fired in early January, and Bill Stepien, the campaign manager for the Christie campaign, who was removed from consideration for Republican Party State chairman. While the trail of evidence linking involved parties has not reached Christie as of yet, there at least a half-dozen ongoing investigations into the incident, including efforts by the FBI and the U.S. Senate.
Christie claims to have had no prior knowledge of the lane closures, and to have no involvement in ordering retaliation against anyone. During a press conference he stated that people in his administration, whom he had trusted, had lied to his face. In the past week, Wildstein has offered up information related to the scandal in return for immunity from prosecution, and Dawn Zimmer, the mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey, has come forward with allegations of other improper conduct by Christie appointees, including his Lieutenant Governor, revolving around the release of Hurricane Sandy relief funds.
Before the break of the so-called Bridgegate scandal, Christie was already a controversial figure. His personal reputation for being a hard-talking, sarcastic, “Joe Fixit”-style politician had already been spun by opponents into a bully image. The various videos of Christie verbally attacking questioners and reporters lent credibility to this portrayal. He was somewhat alienated, perhaps even vilified, by right-wing members of his own Republican party for his embrace, political and literal, of President Obama during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Yet he was still the only Republican viewed as having a clear path to candidacy in the 2016 Presidential cycle.
The flames of the current scandals, however, threaten to burn away Christie’s image as a strong politician with a heavy-hitting, “get things done” style and archetypical Northeastern wit and to replace it with the tarnished image of a petty political dictator and mean-spirited bully. Even if links to Christie are never established, supporters will have to square themselves with the idea that Christie was completely oblivious to the actions of some of his closest staffers and appointees, and that he allowed an environment where his agents believed it to be acceptable to act in a manner more appropriate for mafiosi than political administrators.
Christie faces the prospect of being painted by opponents and pundits as either complicit in the scandal or incompetent in relation to its unfolding. It will be exceedingly difficult for him to avoid both of those labels at the same time, as moving away from one brings him into the line of fire of the other. There is still a long road ahead before the 2016 Presidential campaign cycle moves into high gear, and it is not completely outside the realm of possibility that Christie can clean this mess up and regain some of his former swagger and momentum, but this will be a Herculean task.
It is much more likely that Christie will finish his term as governor, unless more damning evidence against him emerges from one of the several ongoing investigations, in which case he may not even be able to do that. After his term is done, Christie may make some noise towards a future political manuever, but he will shy away from the ferocity of the opposition. He will see the political writing on the wall, and choose instead to fade away from national prominence. Despite his former acclaim and popularity, the odds are that Chris Christie will never be President.
By Mark Clarke