That sound you’re hearing is the air going out of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s 2016 Republican presidential aspirations, thanks to the scandal known as Bridgegate.
We’ve always known that Christie, a former federal prosecutor, has a temper. He can be nasty and combative -- particularly when it comes to entrenched liberal interests like labor unions -- and, frankly, that’s what a whole lot of Republicans like about him. (His temper is also beloved by Democrats who believe his explosive tendencies are their best secret weapon against him.)
He’s popular with Republicans and Democrats because of what passes these days in politics for an “independent streak.”
That -- or so they say -- was what allowed him to put the welfare of his state over partisan politics when he publicly teamed up with President Obama after New Jersey was hard hit by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
The photos of the two men touring devastated shoreline towns were a godsend at a time when both needed a boost. Obama, in the middle of a tough reelection campaign, needed to demonstrate the indispensability of big government with a competent and compassionate emergency response, and Christie needed to show himself as a major player on the national stage, putting constituents over Republican electoral politics. (His embrace of Obama, which included a semi-hug, ticked off plenty of Mitt Romney supporters, coming as it did days before the November election.)
But I’m putting my money against Christie recovering from this scandal.
Last summer, in a stunningly petty act, Christie’s minions apparently ordered the closure of bridge lanes leading into New York City to punish a Democratic mayor who refused to endorse him for reelection.
In an explosive story Wednesday, the Bergen Record revealed a cache of private emails that seemed to show Christie’s staff and appointees orchestrated the closure of lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge to plague the small town of Fort Lee, whose Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, had failed to endorse Christie for reelection.
This is dirty politics at its worst. It’s like chucking a brick through a window because a shopowner won’t pay you protection money. No one wants a potential president who acts like a mob boss.
The lane closures, starting on Sept. 9, resulted in four days of what the Record called “paralyzing gridlock” in Fort Lee, a small town of 35,000, as folks trying to get across the bridge into Manhattan were stuck in jams that lasted for hours.
Here’s the money quote in the emails, from the Record’s story:
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Bridget Anne Kelly, one of three deputies on Christie’s senior staff, wrote to David Wildstein, a top Christie executive at the Port Authority, on Aug. 13, about three weeks before the closures. Wildstein, the official who ordered the closures and who resigned last month amid the escalating scandal, wrote back: “Got it.”
Kelly’s feckless email is bound to go down in history as one of the all-time great political blunders. It becomes the smoking gun that kills Christie’s national political aspirations. Whether he knew about the plan, Christie hired the people and created the atmosphere that allowed this sort of behavior to flourish.
What kind of callousness does it take to snicker about the idea that schoolchildren are missing their first day of school?
“They are the children of Buono voters,” one official wrote, referring to Christie’s Democratic opponent, Barbara Buono, whom he trounced in the November election.
We do know that Christie blatantly lied about the closures, insisting that they were part of a fictional “traffic study.”
If Christie has a single shred of decency -- or a conscience -- he will apologize to the people of New Jersey in general and Fort Lee in particular. He will undertake a study to tote up the amount of money his administration cost citizens who were prevented from going about their business because someone had a political ax to grind. And he will donate that money to Fort Lee.
[Updated 2:16 p.m. PST Jan. 8: In a statement released late Tuesday afternoon on his official website, Christie responded to the scandal: “What I’ve seen today for the first time is unacceptable. I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge. One thing is clear: this type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my Administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.”]
You know what the stupidest part of this whole scandal is? Christie didn’t need Sokolich’s support. At the time of the bridge lane closures, he was leading handily in the polls, and in November, he won by a landslide.
The only thing worse than a sore loser is a sore winner.