What if there was a terrible storm in a state with a Republican governor, and a Democratic president didn’t help? Fortunately for Gov. Chris Christie, that didn’t happen when Superstorm Sandy hit New Jersey in 2012. But when you look at the havoc that top Christie associates inflicted last fall by closing two access lanes to the George Washington Bridge for four days, and their gleeful emails about the resulting gridlock, you have to wonder where they came up with the idea that partisan retribution involving substantial collateral damage to constituents is a legitimate political tool.
At an epic news conference Thursday that lasted nearly two hours, in which he maintained he’d had no inkling of what had happened until the day before, Christie answered press questions and managed himself to raise the question on everyone’s mind. “How did this happen?” he asked. “How did this, you know, occur to us?”
To find the answer, he should give himself a close look. He should also come in for scrutiny from those who think he is the answer to the question of how Republicans can win back the White House.
In Christie’s view, he’s all about bipartisanship. He copped to being argumentative and blunt but, he insisted, in an unfortunate echo of Richard Nixon, “I am not a bully.” Yet that’s the very image he’s cultivated for himself in viral videos that show him yelling at people — often teachers — in a way that seems menacing. And that’s just optics. Check out a few examples of what actually happened to New Jersey residents perceived to have crossed Christie, as reported in The New York Times: a Rutgers University program slashed, a judicial nomination stalled, a consumer-affairs job lost, a state Senate district eliminated.
Christie appears to be laboring under a delusion about his image and the political culture associated with him. Perhaps he is telling the truth that he was “blindsided” by the news that his top aides had instigated the bridge mess for political reasons, to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for refusing to endorse Christie for governor. (Closing the George Washington Bridge, which connects Fort Lee to Manhattan, reduced Sokolich’s burg to a parking lot.) Even so, what befell Fort Lee did not happen in a vacuum. Is this really the person Republicans want as their 2016 presidential nominee?
The New Jersey governor is a hot property at the moment — so hot that even as he was mocking universities that “can't help themselves but do polls that are meaningless three years away from an election,” Quinnipiac University was releasing one showing that Christie is (or perhaps was) the “hottest” politician (i.e., the one viewed most favorably) among possible presidential candidates in 2016. He has considerable potential for broad appeal, including a moderate streak that has led him to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and just this week to sign a new law authorizing lower in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants.
But it’s hardly a flattering addition to the resume of a governor seeking the presidency to have to admit that he knew nothing about what was going on with his deputy chief of staff, the head of his political operation, two of his appointees to the Port Authority that controls the bridge, and whoever it was whose name was redacted from the incriminating emails. The headline over a Times editorial — “The Bully Was a Dupe” — suggests that Christie now has two leadership problems instead of one.
Nor did it help that the incident fit with Christie’s general profile of crushing his opponents. In seeking re-election last fall, he wasn’t satisfied just to win — he had to destroy his hapless Democratic opponent, to go into 2016 as a conquering hero. There are still questions about why Christie set an October date for a special election for a Senate seat, costing the state millions of dollars, instead of scheduling it for the regular November 2013 election three weeks later. Democrats say he did it to avoid being on the ballot with popular Democratic Senate candidate Cory Booker, whose fans would have turned out in force and cut into Christie's victory margin. Christie dismissed that idea and went on to beat Barbara Buono by more than 22 points. He can now go into a national race with the talking point that he was re-elected with more than 60 percent of the vote.
It was striking at Christie’s marathon session with the press that he fretted far more about why his aides had lied to him than why they felt it was acceptable to plunge Fort Lee into chaos for four days. Perhaps that’s understandable as he comes to grips with how badly he misjudged their characters. He did make the appropriate noises about their callous indifference, but that does not remotely convey the human costs or the potential for political damage.
Veteran strategist Mike Murphy wrote in the New York Daily News that he had “never known a governor with a political staff that did not take immense joy in the political pain and suffering of … opponents.” But that misses the point. This wasn’t hardball against a political opponent, which is business as usual. It was also dirty tactics against three heart patients and an unconscious 91-year-old woman awaiting ambulances (the woman later died, though her daughter said it wasn’t due to the traffic delay); against parents facing a delay in the search for their missing child; against kids stuck in buses for hours on their way to school; against a woman who was trying to reach a hospital where her husband was having major surgery. How many other stories are out there? The ads make themselves: Tearful gridlock victim tells his or her tale as chyrons of the damning emails from Christie’s aides run at the bottom of the screen.
If various legislative and criminal investigations don’t preclude it, Christie likely will stay on course and run for president. But it won’t be the race he was planning. He’ll be doing it without the man he recently called “the best Republican operative in the country,” his two-time campaign manager, Bill Stepien, whom he has banished from his circle. And he’ll be doing it with a lot more to prove about his temperament, his management abilities and the culture of leadership he would bring to the White House.