Despite the fantasies of the pundits and political operatives who imagine Chris Christie as some kind of moderate, he is more than sufficiently conservative to secure the Republican presidential nomination. By most reasonable measures, Christie is a strikingly consistent social and economic conservative. So it is not ideology that is most likely to trip up Christie in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
It is his style. The New Jersey governor’s take-no-prisoners approach to politics has always been his greatest strength and his greatest weakness.
Christie’s style helped him get traction in New Jersey. His brash pronouncements and bold gestures made him a national media darling. That’s a big deal in a state that is sandwiched between the New York and Philadelphia media markets. A politician who can make himself heard, even if he might be edgier than many voters prefer, has an advantage. The governor’s style has also had appeal in the upper echelons of a Republican Party that hungers for standard-bearers with a little more dynamism than Mitch McConnell.
But in order to bid for the presidency, Christie must connect with Republicans in small-town Iowa and suburban New Hampshire. And what got Christie to Trenton won’t necessarily get him through Des Moines and Concord.
Even when they criticize public education unions, conservatives in Iowa don’t usually yell at teachers. And New Hampshire politicians are not often linked to schemes to punish political foes that create massive headaches for people who just want to get to work.
So it is that Chris Christie’s “traffic problem” extends well beyond North Jersey.
What started as a bizarre story of access lanes, gridlock and alleged political retribution has grown into a very serious political concern for the governor. The tale began to unfold in September, when access lanes to the heavily trafficked George Washington Bridge were closed—supposedly for a traffic study. The closures created massive gridlock in Fort Lee, New Jersey, a community where the Democratic mayor had refused to join a number of other Democrats in backing Christie’s 2013 re-election bid.
Christie was well ahead in that bid, so it was hard to believe that he or his aides and allies would have even considered punishing the mayor—and by extension New Jersey commuters—to make a crude political point.
But now the Bergen Record is reporting:
Private messages between Governor’s Christie’s deputy chief of staff and two of his top executives at the Port Authority reveal a vindictive effort to create “traffic problems in Fort Lee” by shutting lanes to the George Washington Bridge and apparent pleasure at the resulting gridlock.
The messages are replete with references and insults to Fort Lee’s mayor—who had failed to endorse Christie for re-election—and they chronicle how he tried to reach Port Authority officials in a vain effort to eliminate the paralyzing gridlock that overwhelmed his town of 35,000, which sits in the shadow of the world’s busiest bridge.
The messages also include references to supporters of Christie’s Democratic challenger in 2013, state Senator Barbara Buono, that seem to suggest it is okay to play rough not just with rival candidates but with anyone who might vote for them.
After Wednesday’s revelations, Buono said: “The Governor has created a culture where cavalierly endangering citizens’ lives to exact political retribution is an acceptable form of governance. It’s beneath the dignity of his office and a breach of New Jerseyans’ trust.”
The New York Daily News was even blunter: "In the best possible light, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie built a top staff of lying thugs who threatened lives and safety to serve his political ends," editorialized the paper, which circulates in New Jersey. "If not, Christie is a lying thug himself."
It remains to be seen whether The Daily News is right when it argues that: "Christie’s presidential ambitions are all but kaput, as he will be lambasted and lampooned as a man of low character and horrible judgment—again viewing him in the most favorable way."
But Wednesday's revelations about the emails circulated by the governor's aides and allies won't just hurt Christie in New Jersey. They are quite likely to hurt him in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
The usually unapologetic Christie recognizes the threat—in his home state and nationally—that is posed by the suggestion that his office engaged in the politics of retribution.
The governor has always dismissed suggestions that he was involved in the targeting of a local official who did not do his bidding. And he now says he is “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.“
Until now, Christie has been cut a remarkable level of slack, despite detailed reports of multiple incidents in which the governor and his aides allegedly engaged in the bullying of political foes.
But the barrage of headlines on Wednesday went to the heart of the questions about how Christie and those around him operate.
Politico declared: “Scandal imperils Chris Christie’s no-nonsense image.”
“Road Rage,” shouted The Wall Street Journal.
And Businessweek nailed it: “Bridge Scandal Destroys Christie’s ‘Nice Jerk’ Image.”
This is not playing well in New Jersey.
This is not playing well nationally.
And it has the potential to make it a lot harder for Christie to appeal to the Republicans who vet presidential candidates.
Republican caucus participants and primary voters in states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are not naïve. They know that politicians have egos, and that election campaigns can turn ugly. They don’t reject toughness. They don’t expect presidential candidates to arrive on their doorsteps as pristine political figures who have never been touched by controversy. They can handle the sharp wit of a Bob Dole or the tart tongue of a John McCain.
But there is a reason former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who works hard to present himself as an amiable figure, continues after all these years to poll well in so many states where the Republican nomination fights of 2016 will play out. Even as Christie led many national surveys late last year, a December PPP survey found that while 47 percent of Republicans viewed Christie favorably, Huckabee’s favorable number was 65 percent. That’s significant. The sort of activists who take the lead in choosing nominees want to pick a viable candidate. But they also like to like the candidate they nominate. They have expectations rooted in the experience of the politics and politicians they know—standards that have been established over time. And, yes, they do draw lines that candidates ought not cross if they want to be contenders.
Christie has always straddled those lines. Yelling at teachers is not considered good form. But what’s playing out now is far more serious.
If the “road rage” scandal entangles Christie personally, it is reasonable to suggest that he would be done irreparable political damage.
But even if he can explain away the e-mails of his closest aides and allies, the latest developments reinforce concerns about Christie, and that’s going to make it a good deal harder for him to connect with the Republicans he must appeal to in order to remain a serious presidential prospect.