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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.

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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