Commentary Magazine


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.

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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