Bridge scandal has pundits discussing Christie's political future

Gov. Christie enters City Hall in Fort Lee to apologize to Mayor Mark Sokolich. No evidence has tied Christie to the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, but experts see risks for Christie's reputation.
Gov. Christie enters City Hall in Fort Lee to apologize to Mayor Mark Sokolich. No evidence has tied Christie to the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, but experts see risks for Christie's reputation. (Getty Images)
Posted: January 13, 2014

When Gov. Christie won reelection by a landslide in November, some Republican leaders and many independent analysts deified him as they parsed the New Jersey exit polls.

Savior of his party!

Not only had Christie won overwhelmingly in a blue state, but he had earned a majority of votes of Hispanics and women, two groups that the national GOP recently has had trouble attracting, the poll found. That raised his stock even more as the very early front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Yet last week, even before he had been sworn in for his second term, Christie was fighting a threat to his White House aspirations after leaked e-mails showed that top advisers orchestrated a shutdown of local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, apparently to smite the Democratic mayor of nearby Fort Lee for refusing to endorse the governor.

In a 107-minute news conference Thursday, Christie announced he had fired the deputy chief of staff involved, Bridget Anne Kelly, and had exiled his political consigliere, Bill Stepien. The governor appeared contrite.

The consensus of political strategists and analysts is that the scandal will blow over - unless new information emerges to undercut Christie's contention that he knew nothing about the planned chaos at the bridge and was the victim of rogue aides.

"The cover-up is always worse," said Charlie Gerow, a veteran Harrisburg-based GOP strategist.

No evidence has come to light implicating the governor personally, but there are risks. On Friday evening, reporters and political opposition researchers were combing through more than 2,000 pages of documents released by the Democratic-controlled state Assembly committee investigating the bridge affair. The U.S. Attorney's Office is also looking into the matter.

Lingering questions could worry Republican financiers, the people who bundle contributions and write multimillion-dollar checks to super PACs, Gerow said. "The donor class can be a skittish entity unto itself," he said.

More broadly, strategists say, the scandal illuminates the downside of the political persona Christie has cultivated as a tough-talking, truth-telling tough guy on your side. To some people, he can come across as a megalomaniacal bully.

"You know, being candid and forthright and speaking truth to power is one narrative, but the other narrative is . . . he's a transactional politician, he rewards his friends and punishes his enemies," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) told reporters Thursday in Washington.

Heading into the 2014 midterm elections, voters are rejecting the politics of outrage, said Lara M. Brown, professor and director of the political management program at George Washington University.

She cited recent polling that finds widespread disgust with partisan vindictiveness, and disillusionment at the seeming failure of Washington to solve anything, as well as a record number of voters identifying themselves as independents. GOP congressional leaders have tried to tone down the rhetoric of obstruction, she said.

"I think the country is tired of being angry," Brown said. "It's been almost constant since 2005, and people are exhausted."

Anger over the Iraq War and GOP scandals fed the 2006 Democratic take-back of the House, and in 2009 and 2010, Republicans roared back on the strength of tea-party anger over government's reach.

"Chris Christie said he'd be transparent and turn things around, be a different kind of politician," Brown said. "This just reeks of old-time New Jersey politics. . . . It turns him into just another politician and risks playing into the stereotype that he is not a brash truth-teller, but a rageful bully."

Christie, ever mindful of his image, recognized the danger Thursday. "I am not a focus-group-tested, blow-dried candidate - or governor," he said at one point. "I am who I am, but I am not a bully."

The Christie boomlet has been built on the notion that he would be the most electable Republican candidate in 2016. Poll after poll shows him running even with Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton in hypothetical matchups. He also enjoys higher favorability ratings than many other potential GOP contenders.

Serious Republican fund-raisers and leaders had urged Christie to run in 2012 for the good of the party, they said. But he decided he was not ready and endorsed Mitt Romney. Interest in Christie only intensified after Romney lost, and leaders in the Republican establishment began soul-searching about how their party could be more welcoming.

He has touted his working across the aisle to get things done in Trenton, and shown broad appeal in assembling an electoral coalition that could serve as a model for a presidential general election. In 2013, for example, Christie won the votes of one-third of Democrats and a majority of independents.

Christie's strongest base of support within the GOP has been Wall Street donors who like his pragmatic streak, and other party establishment types who are stressing electability.

The right wing has been wary of him. That Christie was buddy-buddy with President Obama during Hurricane Sandy had some Republicans blaming him for undercutting Romney days before the 2012 election. Social conservatives have wondered, too, about his stoutness on gun rights, abortion, and same-sex marriage.

Christie has picked very public fights with the tea party and blasted its adherents in the U.S. House for obstructionism, which has angered many on the right.

And of course, the most conservative voters dominate the early Republican nominating contests - particularly the South Carolina primary and Iowa's caucuses.

But therein could lie a twist.

"Here's the weird thing about this: The whole scandal may help him," said Craig Robinson, a GOP strategist who runs the Iowa Republican website.

"A conservative Republican caucus-goer who says Christie has been too soft on Democrats now sees he's got people who are taking it to the Democrats. . . . People in Iowa like straight talk, and Republicans want to see somebody tough enough to go toe-to-toe with Hillary Clinton."

So even though Iowa prides itself on a culture of civility, "this thing can play out in a number of ways," Robinson said.

Fergus Cullen, a GOP strategist and pollster in New Hampshire, said the bridge scandal would have little effect on Christie's chances in the state that holds the first primary, absent further disclosures.

"I worry [more] about the right wing of my party disqualifying somebody who's electable," Cullen said, adding that opposition to Christie among New Hampshire Republicans is likely to be ideological, rather than a reaction to his personality.

"He comes across as authentic and a product of his New Jersey environment," Cullen said. "Right now, it looks like some political aides to a politician were caught playing politics. It's expected - and Christie dealt with it effectively."

Whatever happens in the coming days, Christie is only beginning to enter a world of hurt - the scrutiny that accompanies those who might be president.

"You are under the most powerful microscope on the planet," Gerow said. "Anyone who works for him has to understand that everything he does, thinks, and says, every goof, everything he conjures, is going to be magnified."


tfitzgerald@phillynews.com

215-854-2718

@tomfitzgerald

www.inquirer.com/bigtent

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