Commentary Magazine


Topic: Bridgegate

Cuomo and the Bridgegate Precedent

Today, the investigation of questionable conduct in undermining the work of a New York state ethics commission stopped being a tiff between Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York Times. When the office of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York issues a letter saying that it believes commissioners are being influenced to give false statements, Cuomo’s problem has become a matter of legal peril rather than bad public relations. But don’t expect this story to dominate the news cycle the way New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s Bridgegate problems did a few months ago.

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Today, the investigation of questionable conduct in undermining the work of a New York state ethics commission stopped being a tiff between Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York Times. When the office of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York issues a letter saying that it believes commissioners are being influenced to give false statements, Cuomo’s problem has become a matter of legal peril rather than bad public relations. But don’t expect this story to dominate the news cycle the way New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s Bridgegate problems did a few months ago.

Ironically, the blowup in the Cuomo investigation comes just a day after Politico ran a feature asking whether Christie had recovered sufficiently from the Bridgegate mess to return to his former status as a formidable Republican presidential contender. The jury is out on that question but Cuomo’s legal problems and the relative lack of interest in the story by the cable news channels that were all-Bridgegate all-the-time at the start of 2014 raises some interesting questions about media bias.

The first point to be made about federal investigation of the way Cuomo’s office sabotaged the Moreland Commission before the governor disbanded it is that it is a lot more serious than the batty decision to create traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge last fall.

As I wrote on Monday, Cuomo empowered the commission to investigate the endemic practice of pay-to-play in state government that has made Albany an ethics cesspool for decades. But, as the New York Times reported last week, as soon as it started poking around into businesses that were linked to the governor, the word went out from the governor’s office to cease and desist. Cuomo’s appointees followed orders, though apparently some members of the commission protested since they had foolishly thought the governor was serious when he told them to ferret out corruption. Seeing that the commission was going to be a problem and not the sort of harmless stunt that would make a show of his concern for probity, he quickly disbanded it.

Not unreasonably, this has prompted the Justice Department to look into the matter. At the very least, some people on Cuomo’s staff may be in peril of obstruction of justice charges that will taint the governor’s office. But given his own reputation as a political bully with a predilection for issuing threats to political opponents and allies alike, it is not unreasonable to suspect the chief executive may also be involved in efforts to quiet witnesses or perhaps even involvement in the original effort to stop the investigation of a firm that had helped him get elected. That all has yet to be determined, but the willingness of the Times to buy into this scandal with the sort of space and prominent placement and the decision of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District—who is, by the way, a Democrat and an Obama appointee—to double down in the charges with the latest letter illustrates the seriousness of this problem.

In other words, Cuomo is in big trouble and not just media-firestorm trouble but in the kind of legal problem that ends political careers in disgrace.

But, as consumers of our 24/7 news cycle may have noticed, despite the involvement of the country’s liberal flagship newspaper, this Ethics Comissiongate (suggestions for a better scandal “gate” moniker will be welcomed) is still flying below the radar on the same stations that obsessed over Bridgegate.

To state this fact is not to assume Cuomo’s guilt or to deny the seriousness of Bridgegate. The bridge scandal was an example of what happens when small-minded officials and staffers use the great power that has been put in their hands to maliciously inconvenience ordinary citizens in order to pursue petty feuds against other political figures. Anyone involved in plotting this piece of lunacy deserves all the opprobrium that can be rained down on his or her worthless heads.

It is also true that Bridgegate resonated with the public because it illustrated another side of Christie’s well-known public behavior. His penchant for bluntly scourging his critics and punishing his foes was seen as amusing and made him a YouTube star when it was limited to foils like union officials and obnoxious liberals. But even if the genesis of the traffic jam cannot be directly linked to Christie, it is fair to note that those staffers who were involved seemed to be acting in a manner that was consistent with the governor’s instincts. That is something that is always going to be held against Christie and, as Politico noted, his ongoing arrogant behavior toward friends and foes alike merely adds fuel to the fire. This far out from the 2016 contest, it is impossible to know whether Christie still has a chance. But Bridgegate will remain a problem for him if only because it is the sort of scandal that is easily understood (everybody hates traffic jams and has cursed those who create them) and is prime fodder for TV comics.

Cuomo’s legal peril is not quite as comedic or visceral in nature. But it is far more serious. The willingness of the governor to allegedly quash a subpoena on a firm that was a campaign vendor is a classic example of corruption. The governor’s effort to spin this, perhaps aided by an effort to coach witnesses to echo his denials, is, at best, suspicious, and very likely criminal in nature. That means Cuomo can forget about running for president someday and should instead concentrate on staying out of federal prison.

But instead of panels endlessly examining the evidence and pondering the political implications, most of the media yawns. At its peak, Bridgegate got more coverage than other more serious scandals such as the IRS’s discriminatory treatment of conservative groups, government spying, Benghazi, or even wrongdoing at the VA. So it is hardly surprising that Cuomo’s woes aren’t generating the same wall-to-wall attention. Could the reason for that be that Christie was a Republican and these other scandals involve Democrats and the Obama administration? Anyone who can’t connect those dots hasn’t been paying attention to the way the media works.

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Bridgegate Inquiry Verdict Changes Nothing

Reports that a probe of the Bridgegate controversy conducted by outside lawyers at the behest of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has cleared him of wrongdoing is good news for his supporters. According to stories that have been published in multiple news outlets, the inquiry has determined that there is no evidence that Christie helped plot or carry out the bizarre scheme by which officials in his office and allies at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey created a traffic jam on the bridge in order to inconvenience or embarrass the mayor of Fort Lee as revenge for a political slight to the governor.

But those who are hoping this will restore Christie to the strong political position he was in–especially with regard to the 2016 presidential contest–before the story broke in January are bound to be disappointed. While I think it entirely likely, if not probable, that the conclusion that the governor was not personally involved in creating the bridge tie-up will be vindicated by subsequent investigations conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s office and the New Jersey legislature, that won’t stop Christie from being dragged through the mud by those running other probes. Nor will it quiet speculation from unfriendly outlets about what will be learned from the testimony of Christie associates who refused to talk to the governor’s lawyers, who produced this report. That means that although Christie and some of his supporters are acting as if Bridgegate is merely a bump on the road to 2016 that he can overcome, this report is a reminder not only of the difficulty he will have in getting back on message but also the way his opponents—both in New Jersey and in the national media—will use this issue to hound him relentlessly over the scandal in the coming months.

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Reports that a probe of the Bridgegate controversy conducted by outside lawyers at the behest of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has cleared him of wrongdoing is good news for his supporters. According to stories that have been published in multiple news outlets, the inquiry has determined that there is no evidence that Christie helped plot or carry out the bizarre scheme by which officials in his office and allies at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey created a traffic jam on the bridge in order to inconvenience or embarrass the mayor of Fort Lee as revenge for a political slight to the governor.

But those who are hoping this will restore Christie to the strong political position he was in–especially with regard to the 2016 presidential contest–before the story broke in January are bound to be disappointed. While I think it entirely likely, if not probable, that the conclusion that the governor was not personally involved in creating the bridge tie-up will be vindicated by subsequent investigations conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s office and the New Jersey legislature, that won’t stop Christie from being dragged through the mud by those running other probes. Nor will it quiet speculation from unfriendly outlets about what will be learned from the testimony of Christie associates who refused to talk to the governor’s lawyers, who produced this report. That means that although Christie and some of his supporters are acting as if Bridgegate is merely a bump on the road to 2016 that he can overcome, this report is a reminder not only of the difficulty he will have in getting back on message but also the way his opponents—both in New Jersey and in the national media—will use this issue to hound him relentlessly over the scandal in the coming months.

The report, which was paid for by the state of New Jersey, interviewed 70 witnesses as well as reviewing available records. But since the lawyers (led by former Rudy Giuliani chief of staff Randy Mastro) who conducted it are seen as political allies of Christie, Democrats are likely to cast doubt on its findings. Just as important, key figures that did orchestrate the traffic jam, such as Christie’s former deputy chief of staff Bridget Ann Kelly, who did not talk to Mastro because of her potential legal peril, undermined the effort.

But even if subsequent probes by Democrats in the legislature and the U.S. Attorney’s office never prove that Christie was part of the scheme, putting this in his rear-view mirror isn’t as simple as that. The process that will unfold in the legislature and by the Justice Department will ensure that the Bridgegate story will continue to unfold throughout 2014 and perhaps well into 2015. The drip-drip-drip of stories and non-stories about various aspects of the investigation leaked by those with a vested interest in besmirching Christie or at least tying him up in knots in defending his reputation won’t stop.

This is blatantly unfair, as is the fact that the news media was willing to devote more time and resources to covering this story than it was—or still is—to far more serious scandals such as those involving the IRS or Justice Department spying on the press. But at the core of Christie’s problems is something more than just another, if particularly egregious instance of liberal media bias. The fact is that people close to the governor hatched a ridiculous scheme that was intended to advance his political interests. This scheme was absurd and basically pointless but it was a massive and easily understood abuse of government power. Even if he had nothing to do with it, the question of whether a culture of bullying and exacting revenge on opponents fostered by Christie led to Bridgegate will always hover over him.

Christie remains a formidable figure in Republican politics and an able politician. But Bridgegate sullied his reputation in a way that will make it impossible for the governor to recapture the sense that he was the inevitable mainstream GOP choice or even a first-tier candidate for president. He already had serious problems convincing conservatives to trust him. Some will never forgive his 2012 embrace of Barack Obama or his slighting of Mitt Romney during his convention speech that same year, not to mention his pragmatic blue-state emphasis on winning rather than ideology. Bridgegate gave Republicans an excuse to avoid confronting those issues and it isn’t likely they will ever reconsider that decision.

Though he may act as if his plans haven’t changed, even a Christie who is universally acclaimed as innocent on the bridge fiasco—something Democrats will do their best to prevent in spite of the lack of evidence to the contrary—has little chance in 2016. Today’s report doesn’t change that conclusion.

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The Christie Scandal and Journalism 101

Chris Christie’s rough winter has followed a reliable pattern in politics. Though he has yet to be tied directly to the closing of the George Washington Bridge, the whiff of scandal has put him on the defensive and invited the type of scrutiny that usually follows politically wounded frontrunners. Because it dented his image, there have been, and likely will be more, stories of the “maybe we got this guy all wrong” variety. And because it takes place in famously corrupt New Jersey, journalists will instinctively reach for the Soprano State storyline—and not without plenty of justification.

Enter the New Republic’s Alec MacGillis, who has a lengthy article on Christie’s career. It is several thousand words long, and runs out of gas well before the finish line. The headline is “Chris Christie’s Entire Career Reeks,” which aptly sums up the article: throughout Christie’s career, he builds alliances, and as his fortunes rise those of his enemies fall. Something doesn’t smell right to MacGillis, and no doubt there are instances in his career when questions were raised about his knack for playing hardball. But MacGillis gets drawn so far into the complicated world of Jersey politics that he loses his bearings and starts to see corruption everywhere, at some points ditching any pretense of searching for the facts and in the process unfairly maligning not only Christie but others.

This paragraph, on Christie’s reelection campaign, is a good example:

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Chris Christie’s rough winter has followed a reliable pattern in politics. Though he has yet to be tied directly to the closing of the George Washington Bridge, the whiff of scandal has put him on the defensive and invited the type of scrutiny that usually follows politically wounded frontrunners. Because it dented his image, there have been, and likely will be more, stories of the “maybe we got this guy all wrong” variety. And because it takes place in famously corrupt New Jersey, journalists will instinctively reach for the Soprano State storyline—and not without plenty of justification.

Enter the New Republic’s Alec MacGillis, who has a lengthy article on Christie’s career. It is several thousand words long, and runs out of gas well before the finish line. The headline is “Chris Christie’s Entire Career Reeks,” which aptly sums up the article: throughout Christie’s career, he builds alliances, and as his fortunes rise those of his enemies fall. Something doesn’t smell right to MacGillis, and no doubt there are instances in his career when questions were raised about his knack for playing hardball. But MacGillis gets drawn so far into the complicated world of Jersey politics that he loses his bearings and starts to see corruption everywhere, at some points ditching any pretense of searching for the facts and in the process unfairly maligning not only Christie but others.

This paragraph, on Christie’s reelection campaign, is a good example:

For those who got behind the governor, there were incentives. To give but one example: The close-knit Orthodox community in Lakewood had endorsed Corzine in 2009. In March, a coalition of the town’s rabbis and businessmen announced it would be backing Christie this time around. Two months later, the state granted $10.6 million in building funds to an Orthodox rabbinical school in Lakewood, one of the largest expenditures for any private college in the state. (The yeshiva was not exactly cash-strapped: A copy of its application I obtained noted that its endowment “far exceeded” the $1.84 million it was expected to contribute to the project.)

The combination of complex stories and questions of Jewish financial influence on elections almost guarantees that liberal journalists will slip on their biases and their quest for simplicity and fall flat on their faces. Add in the involvement of a Republican, and you have a recipe for journalistic disaster. And that paragraph is a model of journalistic disaster.

The problems with such negligence are manifold, but one surely is that to smear by suspicion and implication an entire religious community because of an obsession with taking down a Republican officeholder is quite obviously morally problematic. But there’s a way to figure this all out. If you weren’t an axe-grinding partisan actor but instead a reporter trying to get the facts, what would you find in this instance?

You would start by wondering, for example, whether it is unique for the Lakewood yeshiva to get state education funding. And you would quickly find that no, it isn’t unique. Christie himself tried to point this out when the state’s leftists, such as Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, criticized him for supporting religious education:

“The speaker is one of the biggest proponents of the [Tuition Aid Grant] program in the state, and I approved the TAG grant program as well,” Christie said today. “From 2000-2012, the Beth Medrash Govoha has gotten $46 million in TAG grants. That’s state money. And the speaker has never raised an objection to that. But now all of a sudden, she objects to her own bill.”

Next, you would probably look into how the Orthodox community in Lakewood, through its rabbinical leadership at the Vaad, goes about making gubernatorial endorsements. You would find, within minutes if not seconds, that the Vaad has a very clearly delineated process for making endorsements at that level: the policy is generally to endorse the incumbent, so as not to get the Jewish community involved in high-stakes partisan politics.

MacGillis would have his readers think the Orthodox community did something unusual in endorsing Christie for reelection when they endorsed his opponent last time around. But it’s no mystery: Christie was the incumbent. In 2009, when they endorsed Corzine, he was the incumbent. The Vaad endorsed Jim McGreevey in 2001, when there was no incumbent. Four years prior, the Vaad did not endorse McGreevey; his opponent that year was Christine Todd Whitman, the incumbent. You get the idea.

I grew up in Lakewood, though I did not attend the yeshiva’s school, instead attending Conservative and modern Orthodox Hebrew day schools. So perhaps I can more easily catch such atrocious mistakes. But the real story, as I explained, would have been very easy to find for anyone looking to get the story right. There are certainly legitimate questions to ask about Christie—having spent much of my life in New Jersey, including working as a reporter, I readily grant that it’s a state whose politics reward, and then perpetuate and produce, cynicism. But it also rewards an honest quest for the truth for those interested in it.

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Christie Hamstrung By Incumbency

The contradiction at the heart of Chris Christie’s successful reelection campaign was that he needed a convincing victory (or at least a victory) to keep his 2016 hopes going strong, yet an actual second term as governor was bound to be an obstacle to those same presidential aspirations in a host of predictable ways. One example was the fact that as governor, he would be restricted in raising much-needed campaign funds from Wall Street due to pay-to-play rules. This had local media speculating, with some justification, that even if Christie won he would be forced to resign to run for president.

Another, more prosaic obstacle would be the traditional second-term blues that term-limited political executives deal with routinely. The irony of Christie’s popularity in a blue state was that being on the ballot for governor made his ideas and policies more attractive than they might otherwise be in New Jersey. That precipitated a certain amount of cooperation from state Democrats, who were no match for Christie. But without him on the ballot anymore, Democrats in the state legislature could much more easily bog the governor down in every conceivable funding fight since lame-duck status drains politicians of at least some of their political capital.

Even before “bridgegate,” that is, Christie’s second term was likely to be a slog. The bridge-closing scandal, however, is not only adding to it but exacerbating the general weakness of his being in office while the Democrats’ most likely nominee in 2016, Hillary Clinton, isn’t. The headline of the New York Times piece detailing these efforts is a bit obvious: “Democrats Grab for a Chance to Halt Christie’s Rise.” Yes, well, no kidding. But the extent of the effort is illuminating:

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The contradiction at the heart of Chris Christie’s successful reelection campaign was that he needed a convincing victory (or at least a victory) to keep his 2016 hopes going strong, yet an actual second term as governor was bound to be an obstacle to those same presidential aspirations in a host of predictable ways. One example was the fact that as governor, he would be restricted in raising much-needed campaign funds from Wall Street due to pay-to-play rules. This had local media speculating, with some justification, that even if Christie won he would be forced to resign to run for president.

Another, more prosaic obstacle would be the traditional second-term blues that term-limited political executives deal with routinely. The irony of Christie’s popularity in a blue state was that being on the ballot for governor made his ideas and policies more attractive than they might otherwise be in New Jersey. That precipitated a certain amount of cooperation from state Democrats, who were no match for Christie. But without him on the ballot anymore, Democrats in the state legislature could much more easily bog the governor down in every conceivable funding fight since lame-duck status drains politicians of at least some of their political capital.

Even before “bridgegate,” that is, Christie’s second term was likely to be a slog. The bridge-closing scandal, however, is not only adding to it but exacerbating the general weakness of his being in office while the Democrats’ most likely nominee in 2016, Hillary Clinton, isn’t. The headline of the New York Times piece detailing these efforts is a bit obvious: “Democrats Grab for a Chance to Halt Christie’s Rise.” Yes, well, no kidding. But the extent of the effort is illuminating:

Democratic Party operatives have churned out 11 different videos depicting Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey as a revenge-happy gridlock maker who cannot keep his story straight.

They are unleashing attacks on any Republican in the country who dares to defend him publicly, from a potential Senate candidate in New Hampshire to a New York congressman.

And they are coordinating strategy at the highest levels of the party with a new standing agenda item on conference calls: how to undermine Mr. Christie, a top Republican prospect for reclaiming the White House.

As much as Mr. Christie’s current troubles are about the stumbling of a rising star in the Republican Party, they are driven, too, by emboldened Democrats who rue their passivity four months ago as Mr. Christie scored a landslide re-election victory, startling the party by securing support from traditionally left-leaning voter blocs.

Now, sensing a chance to redefine Mr. Christie for a national audience, those Democrats are determined to transform him into a toxic figure, whose name is synonymous with the ugliest elements of politics: partisan bullying and backslapping cronyism.

Christie was long seen by Democrats as the most formidable GOPer in 2016, so this is no surprise. But they’ve made clear that they aren’t taking the scandal’s recent toll on his presidential hopes for granted. Democrats seem to be betting that the scandal’s timing–at the beginning of the term–is giving the attention span-deprived public ample opportunity to forget about it two years from now.

They are also hoping to use it as a national distraction for the upcoming elections. ObamaCare’s disastrous rollout and constant stream of bad news means the Democrats will, for the most part, want to talk about anything else (aside from those who want to tout “fixes” to the law). Some of that will be transparently fabricated and tiresome, like the White House’s manufactured war on women. But in case voters are smarter than Democrats give them credit for, the left will need a backup plan. The bridgegate fiasco is a genuine scandal, as well as one that could still produce revelations.

But the specific focus on 2016 is yet another example of the permanent campaign. Or, as I wrote last month, the “end of the presidential campaign.” I was arguing that the possibility that Hillary Clinton might announce her intentions after this year’s midterm elections means there is no longer any real break in the process. That has relevance to the Christie story as well, because not only are the Democrats seeking to make the Christie scandal about 2016 (understandable, since their localized accusations are falling to pieces), but the fact that the Democrats’ preferred candidate is out of office and being supported by a “shadow campaign” gives them time and flexibility Christie simply doesn’t have as a sitting governor.

Whether they can succeed in making Christie toxic in other states’ races remains to be seen. But it’s no surprise they are exploiting his constraints as a sitting governor to try to prevent him from holding even higher office.

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Christie’s Losing Fight for His Political Life

In the first days after the Bridgegate scandal, it appeared likely to me that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 had been lost. But it never occurred to me that within a month he would be fighting for his political life rather than just a shot at the presidency. Yet the latest twist in this bizarre scandal has brought Christie to the point of a political death watch. On Friday, the New York Times reported that the lawyer for David Wildstein—Christie’s longtime friend,  political ally and the man he appointed to the board of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that administers the bridge—stated in a letter that evidence exists tying the governor to the scandal.

It is true that the language in the letter was, as the Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein pointed out, “slippery.” The governor, in fact, did not deny knowledge that the lanes were closed but rather that he knew the traffic jam was the result of a political prank played on the citizens of the region in order to get even with the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for his refusal to endorse Christie’s reelection. As such, it may well be that Wildstein’s mouthpiece is merely seeking to exonerate his client on charges that are serious enough to cause him to invoke the Fifth Amendment when he testified about the incident before the state legislature. On its own, the letter means nothing.

The willingness of the Times—and those who followed its characteristically anti-Republican lead on the story—to jump on the lawyer’s vague hints about possible evidence illustrates the widespread desire of the liberal mainstream media to destroy Christie.

But the blistering counter-attack from the governor’s office on Wildstein, his lawyer, and the Times tells us just as much about how much trouble Christie himself thinks he’s in today. By issuing a statement that dredges up every questionable incident in Wildstein’s life as proof of his lack of credibility, Christie’s office raised as many questions as it answered. After all, if Wildstein is as bad a character as Christie now claims, how is it that the governor not only wanted him as a friend but also gave him one of the most choicest patronage plums available for Christie to bestow? However justified the governor’s denunciation of Wildstein may now be, the desperate nature of this counter-attack may be a sign that Christie knows this struggle isn’t about the presidency but his ability to serve out the remainder of his term in Trenton.

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In the first days after the Bridgegate scandal, it appeared likely to me that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 had been lost. But it never occurred to me that within a month he would be fighting for his political life rather than just a shot at the presidency. Yet the latest twist in this bizarre scandal has brought Christie to the point of a political death watch. On Friday, the New York Times reported that the lawyer for David Wildstein—Christie’s longtime friend,  political ally and the man he appointed to the board of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that administers the bridge—stated in a letter that evidence exists tying the governor to the scandal.

It is true that the language in the letter was, as the Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein pointed out, “slippery.” The governor, in fact, did not deny knowledge that the lanes were closed but rather that he knew the traffic jam was the result of a political prank played on the citizens of the region in order to get even with the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for his refusal to endorse Christie’s reelection. As such, it may well be that Wildstein’s mouthpiece is merely seeking to exonerate his client on charges that are serious enough to cause him to invoke the Fifth Amendment when he testified about the incident before the state legislature. On its own, the letter means nothing.

The willingness of the Times—and those who followed its characteristically anti-Republican lead on the story—to jump on the lawyer’s vague hints about possible evidence illustrates the widespread desire of the liberal mainstream media to destroy Christie.

But the blistering counter-attack from the governor’s office on Wildstein, his lawyer, and the Times tells us just as much about how much trouble Christie himself thinks he’s in today. By issuing a statement that dredges up every questionable incident in Wildstein’s life as proof of his lack of credibility, Christie’s office raised as many questions as it answered. After all, if Wildstein is as bad a character as Christie now claims, how is it that the governor not only wanted him as a friend but also gave him one of the most choicest patronage plums available for Christie to bestow? However justified the governor’s denunciation of Wildstein may now be, the desperate nature of this counter-attack may be a sign that Christie knows this struggle isn’t about the presidency but his ability to serve out the remainder of his term in Trenton.

The cascade of negative stories about Christie that Bridgegate has unleashed seemed to be creating a death-by-a-thousand-cuts scenario that liberals could use to take down a political foe. By forcing the governor and his defenders to respond not only to the allegations of responsibility for the bridge lane closings but also accusations that he had wrongly withheld Hurricane Sandy aid dollars from cities with mayors who didn’t play political ball with his administration, such as Hoboken’s Dawn Zimmer, Christie’s political future would appear to be destroyed even if none of the charges turned out to be true. But the letter from Wildstein’s lawyer raises the possibility that there may be evidence that Christie lied about the bridge even after the scandal broke in January. If so, you can forget about the discussions about whether Christie can recover in time to run in 2016 or even if he should remain as head of the Republican Governor’s Association. If true, Wildstein’s bid to evade accountability for his role in this mess could end by forcing Christie’s resignation.

But even if Wildstein’s accusation comes up short on proof and Zimmer’s claim that she was blackmailed to agree to back a Hoboken project that would benefit another Christie crony also cannot be substantiated, Christie’s governorship has suffered a mortal wound.

If he is lucky, he will spend the next four years fighting a rear-guard action to fend off claims that he knew about the bridge scheme, the alleged Hoboken shakedown, and every other possible problem that will emerge as a Democratic legislature,the U.S. attorney and their cheerleaders in the press put his administration under a microscope. If he isn’t lucky, his opponents will find one or more instances of direct ties between the governor and some misdeed that he can’t talk his way out of or be dismissed as partisan smears.

In other words, whether he is guilty or not, his ability to govern New Jersey, let alone roam the country as a major political figure, may already be over.

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Why Bridgegate Won’t Clear Jeb’s Path

Chris Christie’s “bridgegate” scandal had such an impact on the emerging 2016 GOP primary field not only because Christie was considered the early frontrunner but because of why he was considered the frontrunner. In addition to his advantage as a governor and his success in getting Democratic and minority votes, Christie was the 2016 candidate who was moderate enough to win prominent establishment backing but still conservative enough to envision winning the nomination.

Thus while the primary fight would no doubt be bruising, it was conceivable that the other categories–libertarian, religious conservative, defiant conservative firebrand, etc.–would be represented by more than one candidate and split the remaining vote. Christie, then, had both no competition and too much competition. I think this scenario always overestimated Christie’s odds at winning the nomination because at some point the competition would thin out and supporters would coalesce around fewer candidates, but there’s no question it made him a strong contender.

If Christie is no longer the frontrunner, that means there’s an opening for a “moderate” with conservative credentials. And that, in turn, means we’ll have a resurgence in speculation over whether Jeb Bush will run. Politico catches the latest, which was Bush’s radio interview yesterday mulling it over:

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Chris Christie’s “bridgegate” scandal had such an impact on the emerging 2016 GOP primary field not only because Christie was considered the early frontrunner but because of why he was considered the frontrunner. In addition to his advantage as a governor and his success in getting Democratic and minority votes, Christie was the 2016 candidate who was moderate enough to win prominent establishment backing but still conservative enough to envision winning the nomination.

Thus while the primary fight would no doubt be bruising, it was conceivable that the other categories–libertarian, religious conservative, defiant conservative firebrand, etc.–would be represented by more than one candidate and split the remaining vote. Christie, then, had both no competition and too much competition. I think this scenario always overestimated Christie’s odds at winning the nomination because at some point the competition would thin out and supporters would coalesce around fewer candidates, but there’s no question it made him a strong contender.

If Christie is no longer the frontrunner, that means there’s an opening for a “moderate” with conservative credentials. And that, in turn, means we’ll have a resurgence in speculation over whether Jeb Bush will run. Politico catches the latest, which was Bush’s radio interview yesterday mulling it over:

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush says he will make a decision on whether to run for president in 2016 at “the right time” — later this year.

“I don’t wake up each day saying, ‘Now what am I going [to] do today to make the decision?’ I’m deferring the decision to the right time, which is later this year,” Bush said in an interview Wednesday with Miami CBS affiliate WFOR.

The brother of former President George W. Bush and son of former President George H.W. Bush said he will make up his mind based on whether he can run an uplifting campaign.

Jeb Bush is also pushing back, ever so diplomatically, against his mother’s comments last year that “there are other families” besides the Bushes, and it’s time to give someone else a turn. After Jeb’s brother, George W. Bush, was asked about the comments by Jay Leno (and said his brother would make a great president), CNN quoted Jeb’s response: “Even when I was a teenager, I’d listen to her respectfully and never always followed what she said, even though she was probably right. And now at the age of 60, I really feel I don’t have to listen to every word she says,” he said, drawing laughs. “At some point you got to make these decisions like a grown up.”

But his name came up on Leno’s show again this week, in a more positive mention:

Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner made his first ever appearance on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” on Thursday, just to get some facetime with Leno before he leaves the show on Feb. 6. …

Asked what he thought of the upcoming presidential race in 2016, Boehner said, “I’m not endorsing anybody. But Jeb Bush is my friend and, frankly, I think he’d make a great president.”

Jeb Bush not only has the gubernatorial success and moderate credentials to match those of Christie, but he is also thought to have the crossover appeal to voters outside the GOP’s traditional support blocs that Christie does. So it’s reasonable to assume that Bush, who in fact has picked fewer fights with the grassroots than Christie has, could step into Christie’s shoes. But does that make him, like Christie was thought to be, the frontrunner?

Probably not, because Bush’s path to the nomination would be complicated in a few ways. The most obvious is his last name, and the GOP, with a bevy of young stars, will probably only be more hesitant to nominate Bush now that it appears Hillary Clinton is the Democratic frontrunner. One advantage Republicans would have over Clinton is that she represents a bygone era both for the country in general and the Democratic Party in particular, having already spent eight years in the White House of a president with a very different political agenda than the one she served as secretary of state. It’s doubtful the grassroots, so opposed to the GOP’s history of next-in-linism, would be satisfied with a Bush-Clinton election.

Additionally, Christie wasn’t the only prospective candidate standing in Jeb Bush’s way. The general consensus was that either Bush or Marco Rubio would run in 2016, but not both. They served the same state and would thus split their constituency, most likely ensuring neither would win. Would the party prefer to run Jeb or Rubio? The latter seems the better bet at this point.

Competing with the senators won’t be easy, considering Rand Paul’s popularity and Ted Cruz’s Texas network. And the governors, like Scott Walker and Mike Pence, would thrive against a wounded (or absent) Christie. Luck has never been on Jeb Bush’s side with regard to the presidency: no one doubts his qualifications, experience, intelligence, diligence, or sense of service, to say nothing of his accomplishments in office in areas like education reform. But even with Christie weakened by bridgegate, his path to the presidency is strewn with roadblocks.

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Dems & Media Put a Fork in Christie

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s loyalists are still hoping that the media overkill on Bridgegate and the transparently partisan nature of the charges being lobbed at him and his administration will somehow turn public opinion in his favor. But though that hope might have seemed reasonable, if a bit optimistic, only a few days ago, after the latest development in the widening ring of scandals, such a perspective must now be viewed as a fantasy. After the charges levied at the Christie administration by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer about being shaken down to back a development project linked to a friend of the governor, further talks about his 2016 ambitions is pointless.

It may well be that the governor had no personal involvement in the bizarre traffic jam scheme or the alleged shake-down of the Hoboken mayor and that the several upcoming investigations by the state legislature and the U.S. attorney will find no criminal liability on his part or anyone close to him. But in terms of the political impact of the media feeding frenzy, the legal outcome is almost beside the point. What has happened to Christie this month is a textbook example of how scandals can sink a public figure. His guilt or innocence, the partisan nature of the charges about the use of Hurricane Sandy relief funds, and the fairness of the probes as well as the disproportionate media attention given to Christie scandal stories may well influence how posterity regards these unfolding events. But they will almost certainly make it impossible for Christie to lay the groundwork for what was widely assumed to be an inevitable presidential run as head of the Republican Governor’s Association or to do anything other than defend himself in the coming months or even years.

In other words, the Christie for President bandwagon is not only stopped in its tracks. In the space of a few weeks it has become a pipe dream.

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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s loyalists are still hoping that the media overkill on Bridgegate and the transparently partisan nature of the charges being lobbed at him and his administration will somehow turn public opinion in his favor. But though that hope might have seemed reasonable, if a bit optimistic, only a few days ago, after the latest development in the widening ring of scandals, such a perspective must now be viewed as a fantasy. After the charges levied at the Christie administration by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer about being shaken down to back a development project linked to a friend of the governor, further talks about his 2016 ambitions is pointless.

It may well be that the governor had no personal involvement in the bizarre traffic jam scheme or the alleged shake-down of the Hoboken mayor and that the several upcoming investigations by the state legislature and the U.S. attorney will find no criminal liability on his part or anyone close to him. But in terms of the political impact of the media feeding frenzy, the legal outcome is almost beside the point. What has happened to Christie this month is a textbook example of how scandals can sink a public figure. His guilt or innocence, the partisan nature of the charges about the use of Hurricane Sandy relief funds, and the fairness of the probes as well as the disproportionate media attention given to Christie scandal stories may well influence how posterity regards these unfolding events. But they will almost certainly make it impossible for Christie to lay the groundwork for what was widely assumed to be an inevitable presidential run as head of the Republican Governor’s Association or to do anything other than defend himself in the coming months or even years.

In other words, the Christie for President bandwagon is not only stopped in its tracks. In the space of a few weeks it has become a pipe dream.

There’s a lot about the Hoboken charges that should give Christie’s defenders pause. The allegations that the Christie administration was using federal Hurricane Sandy relief funds as patronage plums to be distributed to friends and denied to foes sounds like politics as usual in New Jersey and many other states. But it is political poison to a man who posed as the champion of those who were affected by the storm as well as someone who won applause for placing their needs above partisan loyalties. The governor’s attack on the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives for holding up the relief bill because of concerns about the money being diverted for patronage or unrelated causes now seems hypocritical.

But worse than that, it will set off another round of investigations by the U.S. attorney as well as the legislature that will mire him and all those around him in the scandal. As with other such investigations, the Justice Department is likely to keep digging until it finds someone to indict even if Christie himself is exonerated. Suffice it to say that Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno—the person accused by Zimmer of threatening  her—will have to do better than today’s statement of denial in which she refused to answer questions or to specify exactly what she said to the Hoboken mayor.

The problem here isn’t so much the specifics of each part of the scandal, be it the traffic jams, the tourism ads that featured Christie, aid to Hoboken, or the various tales of Christie playing the bully with political foes. Indeed, the complicated nature of Mayor Zimmer’s claim that Hoboken was shorted on aid funds—a charge that the governor’s office refutes with its own set of facts and figures—makes it almost impossible for the public or the press to sort this out. 

What we do know is that the steady drumbeat of stories has overwhelmed Christie’s defenders. One scandal was hard enough. A series of scandals that are tied together only by the common thread of political thuggery on the part of Christie’s people establishes a narrative that becomes impossible to deny. While each may be refuted or questioned on its own—for example Zimmer’s failure to come forward with these very serious and potentially criminal charges until after the governor was already under siege is highly suspicious—taken as a whole they create a story line of scandal that is overwhelming. It no longer matters that the liberal mainstream media had a motive to take down the Republican who was surely the greatest threat to a Hillary Clinton coronation in 2016. All that counts now is that Christie is on the defensive and will remain there for the indefinite future. That means his utility as head of the Republican Governor’s Association is at an end and donors preparing to back his potential presidential candidacy would be wise to start looking elsewhere for a GOP contender in 2016.

Christie’s defenders will have plenty to do in the coming weeks and months sorting out the serious charges from the frivolous ones now pouring down on him. It is to be hoped that when the dust settles he will be able, once again, to address the serious reform agenda he so ably championed. But now even that is on hold. For Christie to contemplate anything more than holding on to the governorship, is at this point, utterly unrealistic.

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Without Bluster, Christie’s Not That Interesting

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was under the national media’s microscope yesterday when he delivered his annual “State of the State” address in Trenton only days after the “Bridgegate” scandal broke. Christie responded with a restrained, intelligent speech that acknowledged that fiasco but concentrated on a reform agenda on taxes, crime, education, and other nuts-and-bolts issues that have endeared him to his state’s voters. These are the same topics he would have highlighted even if his political trajectory had not been jeopardized by last week’s revelations of his staff’s bizarre scheme to create traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge. So the address was a chance for Christie to get back on message and to show that he can still govern and do so in a manner that will bolster his reputation as an effective and innovative governor who can work with Democrats for the common good. Judged on its content and by the measured manner with which it was delivered, Christie did just that.

But there is no escaping the fact that the Christie who spoke yesterday was not quite the same guy who had become a national figure in the last year. As many observers noted, the governor’s manner was noticeably more restrained than it had been last year when he took a bow in Trenton in the wake of his successful efforts to help the state recover from Superstorm Sandy. Bluster and flamboyance were replaced by a more low-key approach that showed Christie was acutely conscious of the fact that he could no longer get away with a cavalier dismissal of critics who believe the Bridgegate misdeeds as well as the examples of the governor’s office exacting revenge on his foes were directly linked to his brusque and often arrogant style.

While the change of tone won’t stop Democrats, both in New Jersey and elsewhere, from making his life miserable investigating the scandal and seeking to undermine any efforts for bipartisan compromise, it does offer him a chance to start the difficult task of making the public forget about the nightmare of the last week. But it also raises the question of whether the new, less abrasive Christie will be as interesting and ultimately as much of a star as the old one. Based on yesterday’s evidence, the answer is not so much.

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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was under the national media’s microscope yesterday when he delivered his annual “State of the State” address in Trenton only days after the “Bridgegate” scandal broke. Christie responded with a restrained, intelligent speech that acknowledged that fiasco but concentrated on a reform agenda on taxes, crime, education, and other nuts-and-bolts issues that have endeared him to his state’s voters. These are the same topics he would have highlighted even if his political trajectory had not been jeopardized by last week’s revelations of his staff’s bizarre scheme to create traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge. So the address was a chance for Christie to get back on message and to show that he can still govern and do so in a manner that will bolster his reputation as an effective and innovative governor who can work with Democrats for the common good. Judged on its content and by the measured manner with which it was delivered, Christie did just that.

But there is no escaping the fact that the Christie who spoke yesterday was not quite the same guy who had become a national figure in the last year. As many observers noted, the governor’s manner was noticeably more restrained than it had been last year when he took a bow in Trenton in the wake of his successful efforts to help the state recover from Superstorm Sandy. Bluster and flamboyance were replaced by a more low-key approach that showed Christie was acutely conscious of the fact that he could no longer get away with a cavalier dismissal of critics who believe the Bridgegate misdeeds as well as the examples of the governor’s office exacting revenge on his foes were directly linked to his brusque and often arrogant style.

While the change of tone won’t stop Democrats, both in New Jersey and elsewhere, from making his life miserable investigating the scandal and seeking to undermine any efforts for bipartisan compromise, it does offer him a chance to start the difficult task of making the public forget about the nightmare of the last week. But it also raises the question of whether the new, less abrasive Christie will be as interesting and ultimately as much of a star as the old one. Based on yesterday’s evidence, the answer is not so much.

Christie’s rise to prominence in the last two years was not based as much on his ideas as his personality. He is just one among a number of successful reform-minded Republican governors who have sought new solutions to the deadly spiral of debt and taxes with which liberal big-government schemes have saddled their states. He deserves credit for making progress on these issues, especially in a blue state with a Democratic legislature. But as good as his record may be, it does not especially stand out when compared to the achievements of some of his peers who are also presidential possibilities, such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker or Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal.

What made Christie special was his demeanor. His lack of inhibition when telling people off and dismissing their criticisms was as refreshing as it was often politically incorrect. The YouTube videos of his town hall meetings and press conferences where he jousted with foes were entertaining because of his attitude, not the strength of his positions. Christie’s magic was based on the public’s delight in his brash manner and unfettered opinions, especially his penchant for blasting anyone who dared to question his ideas or motives. It was always an open question whether this Northeast everyman would play as well in flyover country as he did in the metropolitan New York media market, especially when his embrace of President Obama after the storm alienated many conservatives. But as long as he pulled no punches, Christie had little to worry about—a conclusion that was reinforced by a landslide reelection in which his support from women, Hispanics, and blacks seemed liked a preview of a GOP victory in 2016.

But shorn of the bluster and reduced to a calm advocate of good government, the new Chris Christie is not as interesting as the old one.

Having risen to the top of the polls of future Republican presidential contenders largely on the strength of being a media darling, it’s far from clear that the Christie who has been transformed in the space of a few days into a press piñata can stay afloat in the conversation about 2016. The problem is not only that he is taking a pounding from liberals who rightly feared him as the GOP’s best threat to derail a Hillary Clinton presidency. It’s that a Christie who is on the defensive and must now worry about appearing to be a bully will be hard-put to distinguish himself from other Republicans with similar ideas but without the baggage that the governor must now carry as he goes forward.

Unless Democrats and their press auxiliaries can dig up something that directly incriminates Christie in the bridge lane closings, he will survive this rough patch. Polls show he has retained, at least for the moment, his support in the state. But the chastened Chris Christie who must now adopt a more generous tone toward his foes is not the same man who rocketed to fame as the tough guy who wasn’t afraid to abuse the press or tell voters that it was none of their business where his kids went to school or what they did. Even if everyone forgets about the bridge a year or two from now (and given the Democratic interest in making sure we won’t, don’t expect that to happen) Christie can never be quite the same politician again. In some ways that might even turn out to be an improvement since a bit more humility and restraint when torching anyone who isn’t a cheerleader would be a good thing for the governor. But the Christie who emerges from this crisis isn’t the kind of candidate who is likely to become the Republican nominee in 2016.

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Latest Bridge Pile-on Finishes Christie in ’16

In yesterday’s Washington Post, written at the height of the Bridgegate media feeding frenzy, Chris Cilizza claimed that despite the blows New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had absorbed in the last week, he must still be considered the leading contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Perhaps so, but only in the sense that a person who has suffered a fatal wound will sometimes continue functioning for a time before the final collapse. The merits of any such ranking published two years before any votes are counted can be debated with impunity. Moreover, eliminating Christie at this point would force Cilizza–or any other pundit who likes to write lists of this kind–to promote potential candidates such as Rand Paul, Scott Walker, or Ted Cruz (who are, respectively, numbers two, three, and four on the list) to the top spot who currently have no business claiming the title of frontrunner.

But even after a day when Christie’s troubles dominated the Sunday morning talk shows and it may have seemed things couldn’t get any worse for the governor, they have. The media pile-on is continuing with the New York Times running a story at the top of its website this afternoon about Christie’s administration playing hardball with Mayor Steven Fulop of Jersey City in a manner reminiscent of the way it did with Mayor Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee, the intended victim of the bizarre bridge lane closings scheme. Perhaps even more troubling is the news that the Federal Government intends to conduct an audit of funds allocated to New Jersey in Hurricane Sandy relief. The fact that some of that money was used to pay for ads featuring Christie promoting tourism to the hard-hit Jersey Shore resort towns was criticized by both Democratic and Republican rivals of the governor, but no one had paid much attention to the complaint until this week.

There is nothing new or even scandalous in the fact that Christie’s office canceled meetings between Mayor Fulop and commissioners who might have helped his city. Nor is there any merit to cries of corruption about the “Stronger than the storm” ads starring Christie. But the willingness of Christie’s political and press opponents to keep kicking him without mercy now that he is down is an indication of just how deep a hole Christie is in after Bridgegate. The governor’s political career isn’t over, but the national political capital that he had been accumulating in the last two years has vanished. If he is serious about running for president in 2016—something that we should no longer consider a certainty—he is going to have to start from scratch today.

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In yesterday’s Washington Post, written at the height of the Bridgegate media feeding frenzy, Chris Cilizza claimed that despite the blows New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had absorbed in the last week, he must still be considered the leading contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Perhaps so, but only in the sense that a person who has suffered a fatal wound will sometimes continue functioning for a time before the final collapse. The merits of any such ranking published two years before any votes are counted can be debated with impunity. Moreover, eliminating Christie at this point would force Cilizza–or any other pundit who likes to write lists of this kind–to promote potential candidates such as Rand Paul, Scott Walker, or Ted Cruz (who are, respectively, numbers two, three, and four on the list) to the top spot who currently have no business claiming the title of frontrunner.

But even after a day when Christie’s troubles dominated the Sunday morning talk shows and it may have seemed things couldn’t get any worse for the governor, they have. The media pile-on is continuing with the New York Times running a story at the top of its website this afternoon about Christie’s administration playing hardball with Mayor Steven Fulop of Jersey City in a manner reminiscent of the way it did with Mayor Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee, the intended victim of the bizarre bridge lane closings scheme. Perhaps even more troubling is the news that the Federal Government intends to conduct an audit of funds allocated to New Jersey in Hurricane Sandy relief. The fact that some of that money was used to pay for ads featuring Christie promoting tourism to the hard-hit Jersey Shore resort towns was criticized by both Democratic and Republican rivals of the governor, but no one had paid much attention to the complaint until this week.

There is nothing new or even scandalous in the fact that Christie’s office canceled meetings between Mayor Fulop and commissioners who might have helped his city. Nor is there any merit to cries of corruption about the “Stronger than the storm” ads starring Christie. But the willingness of Christie’s political and press opponents to keep kicking him without mercy now that he is down is an indication of just how deep a hole Christie is in after Bridgegate. The governor’s political career isn’t over, but the national political capital that he had been accumulating in the last two years has vanished. If he is serious about running for president in 2016—something that we should no longer consider a certainty—he is going to have to start from scratch today.

As Cilizza rightly notes, Christie remains “the most naturally talented candidate in Republican politics.” A sympathetic pundit like David Frum is probably not entirely wrong when he scorns those who have quickly written the governor off after Bridgegate and may well be right when he refers to Christie, who is still a relatively young man who may well be in play in 2020 and beyond, as being at the beginning of a career in presidential politics rather than at its end.

But the belief that Bridgegate is but a passing phenomenon that will soon subside as do all media firestorms ignores the fact that the fiasco has robbed the governor of one of his greatest assets. Christie became famous by playing the tough-talking truth teller who spoke up for the little guy and worked across party lines. That conceit was created in no small measure by the governor’s ability to earn cheers for brashly ignoring criticism and telling off foes. Now that his office has proved that the talk of his being a bully is no figure of speech, it won’t be possible for him to play that card again without reminding people of the traffic jams on the bridge or his staff’s scheming revenge on Democrats who won’t do as they’re told.

The investigation begun by the Department of Housing and Urban Development over the use of Hurricane relief is utterly specious. Getting people to return to the shore the summer after the storm was integral to recovery efforts and Christie’s featured role was not only customary (governors of both parties and their families are routinely shown in such ads around the country without sparking investigations) but also probably smart; Christie had become the state’s most recognizable and well-liked personality in the wake of his successful storm relief efforts and his controversial (at least to conservative Republicans) embrace of President Obama. The announcement of the probe is also blatantly political since no one had paid any attention to complaints about the ads from Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone when he carried on about it last summer, though Rand Paul, another Christie foe, repeated the charge in November after he and the governor began jousting over foreign policy.

But even though nothing will come of this investigation, the decision of the Obama administration to join the attack on Christie shows how vulnerable he has become. As unfair as this aspect of the pile-on may be, it will drag on for months and, like the bridge business, will be thrown in Christie’s face every time he surfaces. It won’t drive him from office as liberals would like (unless, that is, some evidence surfaces that proves he was in on the bridge lane closings) but it will make it impossible to do the normal business of politics that is essential to preparing a presidential candidacy.

What’s more, Christie’s woes will make it easier for other contenders such as Jeb Bush, who seek the same centrist and moderate conservative backing that he seemed to have in his pocket, to emerge. The momentum Christie had after a landslide reelection has dissipated and the enthusiasm of GOP donors for a man who can no longer claim to be a rising star and media idol is also likely in question.

I’ll concede that a Christie presidential candidacy is not impossible in 2016. But if it does happen, it will have to take a completely different trajectory and be based on a recovery of public affection by the governor that seems high unlikely now. So while I’m not sure who belongs at the top of the list of Republicans kept by Cilizza and other pundits, the one thing I do know is that it shouldn’t be Christie.

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Will Christie Learn From His Searing Political Experience?

The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan, in writing about “Bridgegate”–the stunningly inappropriate, petty, and stupid political retribution by top aides of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie against the mayor and citizens of Fort Lee–provides a reasonable and balanced assessment of Christie’s press conference last week.

“If everything the governor said stacks up, he’ll wind up diminished but the story will fade,” according to Noonan. “If it doesn’t—if there are new revelations or questions that cast him in a dark light—he’ll be finished as a national figure.” But there’s no question that “his uphill fight for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 just got uphiller.”

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The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan, in writing about “Bridgegate”–the stunningly inappropriate, petty, and stupid political retribution by top aides of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie against the mayor and citizens of Fort Lee–provides a reasonable and balanced assessment of Christie’s press conference last week.

“If everything the governor said stacks up, he’ll wind up diminished but the story will fade,” according to Noonan. “If it doesn’t—if there are new revelations or questions that cast him in a dark light—he’ll be finished as a national figure.” But there’s no question that “his uphill fight for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 just got uphiller.”

Ms. Noonan then shifts her focus to staffers and operatives in politics:

Christie operatives are not the only ones in politics who talk this way. And they all do it not because they’re really tough but because they think that’s how people like them—rock-’em sock-’em operatives—would talk. They don’t have the brains, heart or judgment of people who’ve lived a life because they haven’t all lived a life. They’re 30 or 40 and came of age in a media-saturated country. They saw it all on TV. They saw it on a screen.

They sometimes forget they’re not in a TV show about callous operatives who never get caught. They’re in life, where actually you can get caught.

Advice for politicians: Know who they are, and help them mature. If you don’t, they’ll do goofy things, bad things, and they’ll not only hurt us. They’ll hurt you.

Those are words Governor Christie should contemplate. The New Jersey governor is obviously a man with impressive political skills. He won a huge reelection victory in a blue state and has some notable achievements to his name. But it is legitimate to wonder, given how close Christie was to the aides that executed the retaliation, if what happened was symptomatic of a mindset, a pattern of behavior, an organizing political principle. I have no idea. But Governor Christie and those who are closest to him do.

Unless there’s evidence directly tying Mr. Christie to what occurred on the George Washington Bridge for four days in September, he’ll certainly survive. The media obsession with this story will eventually fade. The deeper question is whether the New Jersey governor uses this experience to engage in honest self-reflection.

The character of an administration, its ethos, is determined by the behavior of those in authority. Something was obviously amiss in Christie World. Does Governor Christie have the wisdom and capacity not simply to fire people who have committed wrongs but to change how he operates? Will he surround himself with people who don’t roll their eyes at concepts like the public trust and political integrity? Who, if they had heard about this effort to exact political retribution, would not only have objected to it but dismissed on the spot those who concocted it? Will he build something good out of this searing experience? 

During his press conference last week, Governor Christie said the right things. My guess is he means them. But he’s on notice. One (political) near death experience ought to be enough. 

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The Media and the End of President Christie

For supporters of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, it’s difficult to look at this past week’s events in any but catastrophic terms. A week ago, Christie was still basking in the glow of his landslide reelection and at the top of polls for Republican presidential candidates in 2016. Today, he is drowning in a sea of negative stories about Bridgegate. Yesterday’s apologetic news conference and penitential trip to Fort Lee did little to halt the avalanche of criticism from the mainstream media. Though most political professionals thought his performance at the press conference at which he answered every question was good, most of the reviews have been scathing with pundits denouncing even his straightforward apologies as merely more examples of his self-centered nature. Indeed, his claim that “I am not a bully” will inevitably be compared to Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook.”

As I wrote on Wednesday, there is neither proof nor reason to think the governor had any direct involvement in Bridgegate, Christie brought much of this firestorm on himself. He built his tough-guy reputation with an arrogant, pugnacious style that lends credibility to the notion that he created an environment that might lead some staffers to think he would approve of a petty, vindictive prank on a town run by a Democratic mayor who declined to endorse the governor’s re-election bid. Christie deserved every bit of the crow he was forced to publicly consume, and if many observers are saying his professions of ignorance about what happened are indicative of a faulty management style that is reminiscent of Barack Obama’s excuses for ignorance about his administration’s scandals, there is no obvious defense to the charge. Christie’s dream of winning the White House has been dealt a fatal blow and given that the same media that lionized him last fall will never let him live this down, it is far from clear exactly how he will be able to get back on message in the coming weeks and months. The betting here is that this marks the unofficial end of the governor’s presidential hopes. Two years is a lifetime in politics, but not long enough for this crisis to recede from public memory in time to rebound and recapture the enthusiasm for his 2016 candidacy.

That is the major fact to be understood about Bridgegate. However, once we acknowledge that Christie’s political brand is so tarnished by this episode that he won’t be able to reassume the mantle of the GOP frontrunner, it will then be time to ask whether the mainstream media that helped create Christie’s popularity was entirely correct in the way they destroyed it.

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For supporters of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, it’s difficult to look at this past week’s events in any but catastrophic terms. A week ago, Christie was still basking in the glow of his landslide reelection and at the top of polls for Republican presidential candidates in 2016. Today, he is drowning in a sea of negative stories about Bridgegate. Yesterday’s apologetic news conference and penitential trip to Fort Lee did little to halt the avalanche of criticism from the mainstream media. Though most political professionals thought his performance at the press conference at which he answered every question was good, most of the reviews have been scathing with pundits denouncing even his straightforward apologies as merely more examples of his self-centered nature. Indeed, his claim that “I am not a bully” will inevitably be compared to Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook.”

As I wrote on Wednesday, there is neither proof nor reason to think the governor had any direct involvement in Bridgegate, Christie brought much of this firestorm on himself. He built his tough-guy reputation with an arrogant, pugnacious style that lends credibility to the notion that he created an environment that might lead some staffers to think he would approve of a petty, vindictive prank on a town run by a Democratic mayor who declined to endorse the governor’s re-election bid. Christie deserved every bit of the crow he was forced to publicly consume, and if many observers are saying his professions of ignorance about what happened are indicative of a faulty management style that is reminiscent of Barack Obama’s excuses for ignorance about his administration’s scandals, there is no obvious defense to the charge. Christie’s dream of winning the White House has been dealt a fatal blow and given that the same media that lionized him last fall will never let him live this down, it is far from clear exactly how he will be able to get back on message in the coming weeks and months. The betting here is that this marks the unofficial end of the governor’s presidential hopes. Two years is a lifetime in politics, but not long enough for this crisis to recede from public memory in time to rebound and recapture the enthusiasm for his 2016 candidacy.

That is the major fact to be understood about Bridgegate. However, once we acknowledge that Christie’s political brand is so tarnished by this episode that he won’t be able to reassume the mantle of the GOP frontrunner, it will then be time to ask whether the mainstream media that helped create Christie’s popularity was entirely correct in the way they destroyed it.

As much as shutting down lanes on the George Washington Bridge as “revenge” was an astonishingly stupid thing for Christie’s aides to have done, at this point it’s time to note the disproportional nature of the attention to this story. The liberal media that spent a year treating questions about Benghazi as a Republican distraction and refused to draw any dire conclusions about the politicization of the IRS are now treating a traffic jam as more important than the deaths of four Americans at the hands of terrorists or the unconstitutional behavior of the most powerful agency in the government. Moreover, if Christie were a liberal Democratic star  who abused power in this manner rather than a Republican, it’s fair to assume the scandal wouldn’t be front-page news. We know that to a certainty because then-New York Governor Eliot Spitzer used the state police to spy on his political opponents—a maneuver that is at least as egregious if not far more serious than Bridgegate—without it being treated as front-page news in the New York Times or dominating cable TV news.

That the political press would go all-out on a story as juicy as this one is neither surprising nor, in and of itself, necessarily indicative of bias. But the idea that this was not only an embarrassment and worthy of censure but also merited calls for Christie’s resignation is the sign of how quickly this incident became a political stick with which to crush the man widely thought to be the most electable Republican in the 2016 field.

It should be stipulated that if proof ever emerges that Christie directly ordered lane closings on the bridge for political purposes, this will get a lot worse for him. But given the way he openly mocked suggestions that he had personally taken part in the scheme only last month, that seems unlikely. Even those who are rightly outraged at this abuse of power must admit the nature of the scandal doesn’t rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors.

While I think a thorough investigation of the affair is warranted, it’s far from clear what laws were actually broken other than the informal rules of political conduct that ought to prevent those in power from abusing their prerogatives. Many people were inconvenienced in a prank that still makes no sense, but no money was stolen and, despite efforts to hype the angle of ambulance delays, no lives were lost as a result of the lane closures. It’s doubtful that anyone who would claim this should be enough to force Christie’s resignation from office (the subject of a New York Times “Room for Debate” feature) would be doing so were he not a Republican who looked like a major obstacle to Democratic hopes of winning the 2016 presidential election.

The overkill on Christie may be excused by his presidential ambitions, but the attention paid to this story and the refusal to accept his explanations stands in stark contrast to the willingness by many of the same media outlets to accept President Obama’s excuses about his administration’s scandals last summer. The same New York Times that now dismisses any attempt by Christie to disavow personal responsibility scoffed at anyone that would try to hold the president or his then-secretary of state accountable for what had happened on his watch with respect to Benghazi, the IRS, or spying on the media.

It should also be remembered that while Spitzer was brought down by a sex scandal, prior to that we knew he used New York State Troopers to spy on his political opponents, an abuse of power that is far more frightening from the point of view of democracy than the creation of a traffic jam. Like Christie, that, too, was in keeping with Spitzer’s reputation as a political bully earned while he played the “Sheriff of Wall Street” as New York’s attorney general. But if the liberal media paid any attention to it at the time, it was considered merely business as usual in the rough and tumble world of Albany politics. The fact that virtually no one on the right is making this point is an indication of how unpopular Christie had become among conservatives who can usually be counted upon to speak up when one of their own is under liberal media siege.

After three days, attacks on Christie have risen to the level of overkill and can’t be reasonably sustained without further material that is unlikely to exist. Saying this doesn’t diminish the damaging nature of the revelations or undo the damage that was done to his political career. But once the dust has settled, it will be time to ask ourselves whether the hysteria we’ve witnessed this week was entirely justified and why the same media that has all but buried Governor Christie stands silent and remains unmotivated to do the same amount of digging to expose the inner workings of the scandals in the Obama administration.

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Will “Bridgegate” Damage Christie? Maybe.

Liberals who have been waiting for an opportunity to take down New Jersey Governor Chris Christie seem to have finally fished their wish. The disclosure of emails linking some of the governor’s top aides to a bizarre mini-scandal over lane closings on the George Washington Bridge provides opponents of the Republican presidential contender with plenty of fodder for attempts to debunk his carefully crafted image as a no-nonsense truth teller who is more interested in getting things done than in partisan bickering. Outlets like the New York Times and Politico are playing it for all it’s worth. Some of those hyping the story, like Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall, who wrote today that Christie’s in “big trouble,” are clearly exaggerating the potential harm to the governor in the hope that this will hasten the demise of the man widely believed to be the most formidable general-election candidate in the GOP stable.

But if the governor and his backers think it will all blow over without his having to seriously address the issue, they’re wrong. Christie doesn’t just need to apologize and then fire the aides who were stupid enough to send emails and text messages detailing their role in a foolish prank. This caper inconvenienced thousands of New Jersey citizens in an apparent attempt to exact revenge on the mayor of the town of Fort Lee for failing to endorse Christie’s reelection. Even if there is no proof that the governor was personally involved in this misadventure, Christie should understand that this story bolsters the attempts of his foes to portray him as a bully with a thin skin. More than the fallout from what is nothing more than a minor political dirty trick, the ballooning narrative that Christie is a political thug with a style that is well-suited to New Jersey politics but not to the national stage could very well damage his presidential hopes.

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Liberals who have been waiting for an opportunity to take down New Jersey Governor Chris Christie seem to have finally fished their wish. The disclosure of emails linking some of the governor’s top aides to a bizarre mini-scandal over lane closings on the George Washington Bridge provides opponents of the Republican presidential contender with plenty of fodder for attempts to debunk his carefully crafted image as a no-nonsense truth teller who is more interested in getting things done than in partisan bickering. Outlets like the New York Times and Politico are playing it for all it’s worth. Some of those hyping the story, like Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall, who wrote today that Christie’s in “big trouble,” are clearly exaggerating the potential harm to the governor in the hope that this will hasten the demise of the man widely believed to be the most formidable general-election candidate in the GOP stable.

But if the governor and his backers think it will all blow over without his having to seriously address the issue, they’re wrong. Christie doesn’t just need to apologize and then fire the aides who were stupid enough to send emails and text messages detailing their role in a foolish prank. This caper inconvenienced thousands of New Jersey citizens in an apparent attempt to exact revenge on the mayor of the town of Fort Lee for failing to endorse Christie’s reelection. Even if there is no proof that the governor was personally involved in this misadventure, Christie should understand that this story bolsters the attempts of his foes to portray him as a bully with a thin skin. More than the fallout from what is nothing more than a minor political dirty trick, the ballooning narrative that Christie is a political thug with a style that is well-suited to New Jersey politics but not to the national stage could very well damage his presidential hopes.

As for what actually happened in early September, even lengthy accounts, such as that provided today by the Times, are somewhat sketchy. The emails and text messages dug up by journalists establish that the governor’s deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly, as well as David Wildstein and David Samson, who were appointed by Christie to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that controls the bridge over the Hudson River between the two states, establish that they helped orchestrate lane closings. As a result, commuting time was quadrupled for people who lived in the Fort Lee area. Though the Times headline explicitly describes this as an attempt at “revenge” for Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich’s decision to back the campaign of Barbara Buono, Christie’s doomed Democratic challenger, weeks after the closings even the mayor wasn’t sure that rumors that he was being punished for his choice were true. Seen in that light, the plot was as clumsy as it was wrong, since a clever bully would have made it clear to Sokolich that the bridge closings would occur before he turned Christie down, not afterward when the causal connection would be all too apparent.

Equally as botched is the spectacle of presumably sophisticated political operatives using forms of communication to hatch a juvenile plot that could easily be traced back to them and, even more damaging, jeopardizing the political future of their boss. While some are comparing the closings to a plot twist in an episode of The Sopranos, that’s unfair to Tony’s gang. When they schemed and plotted, they knew better than to leave themselves open to successful detection. All this speaks to an atmosphere in the governor’s office that seems roughly comparable to Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign that had no more need to bug Democratic offices in the Watergate than Christie needed to take a shot at Fort Lee. Even if Christie knew nothing about this specific incident, he bears some responsibility for tolerating an environment that produced this kind of behavior.

Of course, it’s not likely that too many voters in New Hampshire, Florida, or any other early primary state will remember the details of Bridgegate two years from now when the GOP will be choosing its presidential nominee. It’s doubtful that many of them will understand the mechanics of bridge lane closings and Northern New Jersey traffic patterns sufficiently (something that was also the case of many of those writing about this from near and afar) to make the story stick in their minds in a way that will doom Christie’s chances. As far as we know, nobody died in the traffic jams. Nor did this involve stolen money or any of the other traditional elements of scandals that are generally fatal to politicians such as the proverbial “dead girl or live boy.”

But what this story does do is provide chapter and verse to a Democratic script that seeks to transform Christie’s image. The governor skated to a landslide reelection last year and from there to the top of Republican Party presidential polls. He embodied the everyman who laughs at his own weight problems on late-night television and fearlessly tells off union bosses, liberal critics, and conservative members of his own party. But if Democrats can convince voters that he is more of petty, spiteful thug than a likeable man of integrity, he really is finished.

Will they succeed? Maybe. After all, Christie became a GOP star largely on the basis of YouTube videos of town hall meetings in which he berated critical questioners and of press conferences in which he verbally mugged journalists. To his fans, it was refreshing candor. But to the objects of his scorn it doubtless felt like bullying. Combined with numerous other examples of his playing rough with political opponents, Bridgegate can help feed a narrative in which Christie can be portrayed as an unattractive figure who is not capable of withstanding the scrutiny afforded national political figures.

This afternoon, the governor issued a statement expressing regret for the incident and saying he was “misled” by aides and that it had gone on without his knowledge. But if Christie is to get out of this pickle, he will have to do more including firing those staffers who are implicated in the bridge closings and apologizing for both their actions. He must also acknowledge that he failed  to address this problem until it blew up in his face. As I wrote last month when the Times placed a feature about allegations of his bullying style on the front page of its Christmas Day edition, it isn’t clear whether Christie’s old-school political style will work against him elsewhere. But is certainly possible that this story will reinforce the Democrats’ spin that the characteristics that made him popular in New Jersey will work against him on the national stage. Any further delay by the governor in addressing this story head-on will only make matters worse.

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