World

Chris Christie’s XXXL-sized political hole, all of his own making

By J Brooks Spector 9 January 2014

New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie, currently reeling under a scandal in which a senior advisor ordered vehicular traffic lanes closed over the single busiest bridge in the country, causing massive traffic jams, held a press conference Thursday to clear things up. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a closer look at the scandal and its possible impact on America’s political future.

Christie offered an abject apology for what happened and then fired one of his key aides. The move had apparently been an attempt to punish the Ft Lee mayor, a Democrat, who had refused to endorse Christie for governor in his recent – and successful – re-election bid. But will Christie’s public grovel lance this embarrassing political boil sufficiently to put his hopes of winning the Republican nomination for president in 2016 back on track – or will it consign him to the list of presidential political also-rans?

It wasn’t so long ago Chris Christie had entered the national psyche as a tough, no-nonsense politician who also seemed to feed off a kind of affectionate channelling of TV character, Tony Soprano, but without the Soprano’s existential angst about his career challenges. A former prosecutor and a Republican, he had the ‘get it done; get it done right’ attitude that citizens of traditionally Democratic-leaning New Jersey had warmed to and elected as their governor twice – the second time with a crushing majority over an ill-fated state legislator Barbara Buono.

Helping to clinch a growing hold on favourable public opinion, Christie had publicly embraced incumbent president – and candidate for re-election – Barack Obama, in the immediate wake of superstorm Hurricane Sandy that had just devastated the New Jersey coastline and coastal towns, just in time for 2012 presidential election. Christie’s action had been shaped as if to say, “Yes, of course we’re from different parties, but at times like this we put aside partisanship.” This public demonstration helped Obama seal victory and – save for those Republicans who simply couldn’t abide the idea of even being civil to Obama – gave Christie a vital tool in demonstrating he was an activist governor, a Republican, yes, but a man who could win convincingly in New Jersey – and thus in the nation as a whole in the upcoming 2016 election. Seemingly finalising his preliminary moves towards a candidacy was his undergoing bellyband surgery to help bring down his considerable girth; image does matter. Americans like their presidents fit, and a really big guy in the weight department in the White House hasn’t really been in vogue since William Howard Taft’s day, back at the beginning of the 20th century.

But suddenly, Christie’s increasingly admired eminently electable, tough guy image, the image that was feeding a surge of interest in him as a Republican candidate for the presidency has been transformed – the wrong way. Now he is being seen as a mean-spirited, small-minded, small-ball, take-no-prisoners, get-even-at-all-costs kind of guy – sort of like a suburban Cesare Borgia, running amok in northern New Jersey.

So what has happened?

On Thursday morning, to stem a growing uproar, Christie appeared in an internationally televised, “mea culpa, mea maxima culpa” press conference where he said he was “embarrassed and humiliated” for what had happened and that he took personal responsibility for the actions of his staff in blocking the roads feeding onto the busy bridge. Christie added he would go to Ft Lee on Thursday to apologise to the town’s mayor, Mark Sokolich, for what had happened in his name. And then, to show his moral fibre, he had promptly fired his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, “because she lied to me” after the governor had asked who had done what in the growing scandal, as an example of Christie’s political courage in taking the heat in his particular kitchen.

Kelly had written an email to David Wildstein, Christie’s then-appointee on the board of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (the two-state commission that manages the region’s harbours, and its bridges, tunnels and ferries), saying, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” (Wildstein has also become a casualty of the unpleasantness, of course). And in response to Kelly’s note, Wildstein had dutifully written back, “Got it”. As a result, the Port Authority had blocked off several lanes of traffic onto the George Washington Bridge, causing massive traffic jams with daily gigantic tailbacks leading to the bridge. Not surprisingly, this generated enormous rage among commuters. Along the way, the emails also called the Ft Lee mayor, “that Serbian” in what was apparently meant as a deprecating reference to his ethnicity. (Sokolich’s ancestry is in fact Croatian, not Serbian, but no matter.)

Although there is still no firm evidence Christie had any actual knowledge of the plan in advance, this whole thing is, increasingly, beginning to sound rather like a not very clever, contemporary, secular political version of “Becket”; you know, where England’s King Henry II turns to his advisors after yet another unsatisfactory exchange with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and says to his friends, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” Hmm.

From a more modest bit of New Jersey political hardball, this scandal has moved onto the national political centre stage, now that it is clear there was a political motive behind the traffic actions. The political goal was to have some white-hot commuter anger directed back at Ft Lee’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, something the mayor has now, not surprisingly, called “appalling”. The traffic jams had been deliberately created as retribution for his refusal to join a large number of other New Jersey Democratic mayors in their endorsement of Christie for governor in the 2013 election. The irony, of course, is that was it was totally unnecessary to get Ft Lee’s mayor on his side in the first place. Christie had blown his Democratic opponent right out of the room in the election. This was just pure political payback – or spite.

In the meantime, Wildstein told a state legislature panel on Thursday that he was asserting his right not to testify (you know how it goes from a thousand court room dramas: “On the advice of counsel, I assert my right to remain silent”.) By the end of the day, Wildstein’s statements had not gone down particularly well with the legislative committee as they found him to be in contempt of the legislature – a criminal misdemeanor.

At this point, Paul Fishman, the US attorney – the federal prosecutor for New Jersey – has said he was “reviewing the matter to determine whether a federal law was implicated.” Given statements by emergency services personnel that the lives of heart attack victims might have been threatened by the lane closures, it seems a reasonable bet Fishman’s staff is going to find a way to have some interesting conversations about possible violations of federal law. And that, of course, will mean the scandal stays in the news, day after day, drip after drip, with embarrassing and colourful corroborative detail all along the way.

Over half a century ago, Richard Nixon, fresh from his humiliating defeat in the 1960 presidential election, had written a book, “Six Crises” as an effort to demonstrate he was a feisty, unrelenting fighter with real political fortitude and staying power in the face of adversity. Ultimately, this book proved a way station on Nixon’s road to political redemption, in preparation for his ultimately successful run for the presidency in 1968 – before he was undone by the Watergate scandal in his second term.

With this George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal, Chris Christie is now clearly facing the biggest political challenge of his own career. And overcoming this blow to his carefully sculpted image as a tough but generous politician, capable of genuine bipartisanship, will likely test Christie’s mettle every bit as much as any one of Richard Nixon’s crises did to him.

Less than two weeks from now, Christie has been scheduled to hold his second inauguration, amidst great fanfare, right in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. (The statue is located on an island right off shore of New Jersey.) Until now, the inauguration has been planned as a symbolic effort to expand Christie’s bipartisan appeal to the nation. The planning also had him unveiling his second-term priorities, to solidify his presidential resume, in his state-of-the-state address that is to be delivered later this month, even as he also began a national travel schedule as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. All of this may well have a very different texture to it, going forward.

Christie’s political rehab will not be helped by the fact he will be attempting to carry it out in the full glare of the nation’s primary media market – right there on the front pages of the New York Times and in the evening news broadcasts of all the national TV networks. All of this will repeat and recycle through the political blogs and social media of the nation – 24/7. Going forward, everyone will now be watching to see if Christie’s presidential ambitions have been fatally harmed by a stupid political trick against the mayor of a small city in New Jersey. DM

For more, read:

  • Chris Christie: ‘I am embarrassed’ at Politico;

  • Christie fires aide, apologises for traffic jams at the AP;

  • Christie faces political fallout over traffic jam at the AP;

  • Christie to Address Controversy Over Bridge Lane Closings at the New York Times;

  • Chris Christie Gets Caught in Traffic – New Jersey governor hits first real 2016 speed bump at Time;

  • Chris Christie’s critics savor his misfortune at Politico;

  • Bridge-Spat Emails Pose Questions For Christie at the Wall Street Journal;

  • E-mails suggest Christie aides jammed traffic as political revenge at the Washington Post;

  • Christie’s Carefully Devised, No-Nonsense Image in Peril at the New York Times;

  • Christie Faces Scandal on Traffic Jam at the New York Times.

Photo: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks at a news conference in Trenton January 9, 2014. Christie on Thursday fired a top aide at the center of a brewing scandal that public officials orchestrated a massive traffic snarl on the busy George Washington Bridge to settle a political score. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

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