Chris Christie stares into political abyss

AFP photo/Jim Watson
AFP photo/Jim Watson

Chris Christie, staring into the abyss of political death, just wrapped up a lengthy presser at which he made an ambitious effort to convert bridge-gate into a showcase of his own hands on crisis management.

Christie announced the firing of the aide who wrote the reprehensible “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email. He said he’d told a top aide directly involved in the scandal not to become state party chairman. He repeatedly claimed he’d been “lied to,” vowed to apologize to the mayor of Fort Lee in person, and took personal responsibility for what happened — while insisting he had no knowledge whatsoever of his staff’s actions before hearing about it from his communications director after working out yesterday morning.

The immediate balance Christie struggled to strike: how do you convey an aura of hands on crisis response while simultaneously claiming no knowledge of heinous actions by your own staff? Christie sought to do this in part with a slippery redefinition of what constitutes leadership: “the test of leadership is, when you find out, what do you do?” Along these lines, he flatly asserted that the people of New Jersey would retain “trust” in him, because they’d evaluate his response to the scandal above all else.

Much of what Christie said seemed undergirded by a clear awareness of just how lethal a threat this story poses to his national brand. It was striking how quickly he used this presser to try to reestablish an “above politics” aura. Christie — who has battled a reputation for having a tripwire temper — repeatedly referred to himself as “sad,” suggesting at least twice that “anger” might be a stage of grief he’d pass through later. In an interesting moment, Christie did describe himself as “angry” over the tone of the emails, but then quickly said that this was “the one bit of anger I felt.”

Strikingly, Christie was not willing to say whether more evidence of might come out, saying he has to be “much more circumspect” about what happened. This comes as the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey has opened an investigation into the matter.

I was not one who thought Christie could never, in raw political terms, move beyond this story. My immediate sense is that Christie probably did as well as he could have under the circumstances, and if nothing serious emerges beyond the latest revelations, it seems plausible that he might be able to move beyond it. Of course, much more could come out. Christie made a number of assertions that constitute fat targets for fact checkers and others to take aim at. And one key takeaway was that he implicitly asked us to believe he didn’t know how all of this came about. That still remains to be established, and the details could further undermine confidence in his leadership abilities. So this could well be far from over.

National Democrats have been attacking Christie for months. Folks think this is mostly about his likely 2016 ambitions, but there is a more immediate goal: disqualifying Christie as a major surrogate for 2014 GOP candidates. Dems view Christie as one of the party’s best surrogates – someone who can help among independents by offsetting the national GOP’s image as captive to extreme elements in the party and unwilling to engage in constructive governing — which is why they’d worked so hard to draw attention to his temper and reputation for vindictiveness even before bridge-gate broke.

Obviously Christie won’t be going out on the trail for GOP candidates anytime soon. And so, in the short term, this scandal has helped accomplish one key Dem objective. But there’s little chance Dems watched today’s presser and emerged with any genuine confidence that Christie’s long term viability is beyond repair.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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Greg Sargent | January 9