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October 20, 2014
Friday, January 10, 2014

How damaged is Governor Christie?

A car uses an onramp to the George Washington Bridge toll plaza in Fort Lee, NJ, yesterday.
By Dan Balz
The Washington Post (*)

It’s too soon to assume the Republican White House hopeful can’t recover, say analysts

Two months after winning reelection in a landslide, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has hit the low point of his political career. Two months after being touted as the nominal frontrunner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, his prospects for claiming the White House are clouded by controversy.

The fall came quickly for the brash governor. His self-made reputation for blunt talk, and his seeming enthusiasm for confrontation with anyone who disagreed with him, always has been part asset and part liability. The worry for Christie now is that the scandal over a massive traffic jam on the George Washington bridge ordered by his own people will tip the scales decisively in the direction of liability.

The governor is on the defensive because of a petty act of vengeance by those aides, who apparently decided to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, NJ, for refusing to endorse Christie’s bid for reelection. The damning language that crystallized the crisis Wednesday is now writ memorably into the political lexicon: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

That was the exact message emailed by Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, to David Wildstein, a longtime Christie friend and one of the governor’s two top appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. “Got it,” Wildstein emailed back.

None of the emails released Wednesday touched Christie directly. The governor’s first response, in a written statement eight hours or so after the first stories appeared, was to claim that this was the first he had learned about what his aide and associates had done.

Christie answered questions directly at a news conference yesterday morning, a session that was far different in tone from his earlier public discussions of the bridge controversy.

The challenge for Christie now is that he may be forced to play against type. He has put himself forward as the man in charge, the decisive governor and no-nonsense former prosecutor. On Wednesday, he portrayed himself as the outraged victim of those who work for him, deceived by underlings. But he was not apologetic.

Christie promised to hold those responsible accountable, which is the minimum necessary. What more does he owe those New Jersey citizens whose lives were disrupted by an act of political retribution? The question is whether he can be both tough and believably contrite — a posture for which he is not well known.

As with all political scandals, broad conclusions in the opening hours are risky. The controversy has touched off a fevered round of speculation about just how seriously this could complicate Christie’s hopes of winning either the GOP nomination or a general election.

Among those watching closely, both Republicans and Democrats, two thoughts have emerged. If there is anything that ties Christie directly to what happened, the controversy likely will be fatal to his future political aspirations. That’s pretty obvious. If not, the issue is whether this becomes a moment that fades rather quickly in public consciousness or that leaves lasting doubts about Christie’s character and temperament.

A Republican strategist with close ties to the party’s establishment wing, where Christie has been strongest, said yesterday morning that the controversy is causing some reassessment of Christie the politician and potential presidential candidate.

The reasons are twofold. First, the instinct to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolish reflected bush league thinking. Christie did not need the mayor’s endorsement to win reelection. And he had other Democrats backing him.

Second, Christie’s statement Wednesday perpetuated the image of an angry politician, not an apologetic one who felt remorse or regret for the disruption caused by the actions of those in his administration. That too was a cause for concern within the party establishment — that Christie somehow misjudged what was needed in the immediate aftermath of the damning emails.

For Christie, there will be plenty of time for apologies. Whether they are ultimately seen as a genuine change in his otherwise aggressive posture or merely a short-term strategy to get through this controversy is the more important question. From here on, anything that reinforces the image of a belligerent politician will be all the more problematic for him.

He opened his press conference with that apology, to the people of New Jersey and to Democratic legislators. Christie said he was “embarrassed and humiliated” by the conduct of some members of his team. He added that what was done was “completely unacceptable and showed a lack of respect” for the role of government “and the people we’re entrusted to serve.” He said he would go to Fort Lee to apologize personally to the mayor.

He also announced two important personnel moves. He fired Kelly, the author of the most damaging email. He also announced that he had ordered Bill Stepien, one of his closest advisers, not to put his name in nomination for Republican Party chairman in New Jersey and to withdraw from his new position as a consultant to the Republican Governors Association, which Christie now chairs. “Actions have consequences,” he said.

Yesterday's news conference will not end the scandal. There will be further investigations led by Democratic legislators in Trenton and perhaps others. The sight of Christie on the defensive will embolden his Democratic opponents to challenge him in other areas.

Christie is fortunate that the presidential campaign is well into the future and that the voters in the early primary and caucus states are paying minimal attention to any of the early maneuverings. With that in mind, Republicans and Democrats who have been through presidential cycles are cautious about drawing conclusions.

“This probably costs him the momentum he had in the national space and potentially complicates the finance side at the least,” said one strategist who asked not to be identified in order to offer his analysis. “If it spirals out of control, it could be ultimately very, very bad, but I don't think we are there yet.”

Others shared that assessment: damaging, yes, but too soon to assume that Christie cannot recover. In fact, several said that, given his track record, they expect that he can recover.

“It's fatal only if the trail somehow leads to him,” said David Axelrod, longtime chief strategist to President Barack Obama. “If he ordered the lane closures, that would be a huge problem, especially after his statements this week. Otherwise, I am very, very reluctant to call it ‘fatal.’ One of the great flaws we have in our world is an impulse to judge these things in the moment as existential crises, of which, it turns out, there are very few in the annals of politics. If he deals firmly with the offender, and the trail doesn’t lead directly back to him, my bet is that this will be a, well, bump in the road.”

Another Democrat who has been through several presidential campaigns said Christie’s actions over the next few days will be crucial and closely watched. Assuming he handles things better going forward than he has to date, he predicted that this would be an issue, but not a dominant one, in the Republican primaries.

But this Democrat also predicted that the residue of the bridge scandal could linger into a general election, were Christie successful in winning his party’s nomination. The reason has to do with the importance of temperament in the assessment of voters. “In the general [election], there is a fine line between strong temperament and risky temperament,” he wrote in an email message.

That points to the major challenge now facing Christie: Can he tame his volatile temperament? Can he retain the forcefulness and bluntness that has made him attractive to voters in New Jersey, and to many Republicans and GOP fundraisers looking toward 2016, while reassuring them that he is not a bully who relishes political conflict and retribution?

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