New Jersey Governor Chris Christie mounted what the New York Daily News aptly termed a “pathetic” defense amid the growing scandal arising from the abuses of power that gridlocked access lanes to the world’s busiest motor vehicle bridge. In the wake of his claim that he had been “betrayed” by his closest aides, his campaign manager and his appointees, there were still some politicians and pundits who imagined Christie might be a presidential prospect. But as Thomas Kean, a former New Jersey governor and a Republican elder statesman who was once Christie’s mentor, said, “You look at [his governing style] and ask, do you really want that in your president?”
The ultimate answer will be no. Even before the September lane blockages in Fort Lee were recognized as an act of political payback, it was clear to anyone paying attention that Christie had earned what 2013 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Barbara Buono referred to as his “reputation for utilizing the levers of power to exact political revenge.” National Democrats let Buono down in her challenge to Christie, failing to provide her with the resources and support that might have opened up a real debate about the governor’s abuse of power. These days, however, there is growing acceptance that Buono is onto something when she says, “He’s somebody who wants to lead our nation and be the chief executive over the largest, the most powerful, military force in the world. And he can’t be trusted to manage the busiest bridge in the world.”
Whether Christie is simply a bad manager who hires horribly, or a far more seriously flawed figure, is the subject of intense debate. As New Jersey Senate majority leader Loretta Weinberg said several days after the governor’s marathon press conference, “The issue has grown, and the unanswered questions have multiplied.” Weinberg, a Democrat, represents the region that was gridlocked and has taken the lead in demanding a full inquiry. New Jersey’s Senate president, Steve Sweeney, was wise to name the veteran legislator to lead a bipartisan special Senate committee with subpoena power and a charge “to get to the bottom” of the scandal. The New Jersey Assembly has moved to expand an already opened probe, and the US Attorney for New Jersey has launched a “preliminary inquiry.” These state and federal investigations, along with belated media scrutiny, should reveal a good deal more about Christie. Whether or not his aides and allies ever face criminal charges or the governor himself becomes even further entangled in the scandal, it is hard to imagine that the revelations will improve an image so tarnished that Bruce Springsteen is singing parody songs about New Jersey’s payback politics.
Those who make apologies for Christie imagine that as long as it can’t be proved that he gave the order to block the bridge, the governor will remain a GOP front-runner among the church deacons of rural Iowa and the hockey moms of southern New Hampshire who vet party nominees. But the apologists are clinging to a fantasy that is rapidly degenerating into absurdity. This is about much more than partisanship or ideology. As they get a fuller sense of Christie, voters on the presidential campaign trail can be expected to reach the same conclusion as Richard Aregood, the Pulitzer Prize–winning former editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Daily News and the Newark Star-Ledger, who laughed off Christie’s claim that he was betrayed by his staffers and appointees. “Humbug,” wrote Aregood. “They were his people doing what they believed was his will. If they were incompetents, they were his handpicked incompetents, with whom he was perfectly content until the heat rose on his personal backside.”