Welcome to day six of Bridge-gate (we prefer bridge-nado but the masses have spoken). The general consensus is that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, while damaged politically, is far from destroyed. As of today, we agree. But, it's also important not to forget that the scandal over traffic lane closures in Fort Lee, New Jersey -- politics is amazing, isn't it? -- have already cost Christie in real ways even if nothing new comes out.
Let's list them.
1. The inner circle disruption. Look at the successful presidential campaigns of recent vintage like Obama 2008 or Bush 2000 (or even McCain 2000). What did they all have in common? A strong -- and small -- core of senior advisers who either had been with the candidate from the start or -- as in the case of Obama -- gave up everything to work on getting him elected. It's impossible to overrate just how important it is for a presidential candidate to have a group of people around him or her who a) know the candidate's strengths and weaknesses innately b) can stand up to the candidate when he or she screws up and c) are unstintingly loyal to the candidate and cause.
Christie already had much of that team in place as he began turning from New Jersey to the national stage after winning re-election last year. But, the casting-out of Bill Stepien, who managed both Christie's 2009 and 2013 races, is a major disruption in that inner circle. Wrote CNN's Peter Hamby: "Stepien was one of Christie's most trusted senior advisers, ranking just beneath political guru Mike DuHaime and longtime confidante Bill Palatucci in the governor's political hierarchy." You don't simply replace Stepien in Christie's world. Political staff at that level is not just plug and play.
One of Christie's strengths -- before bridge-nado -- was that he had a group of advisers already in place -- a sort of circle of trust that every candidate wants/needs. Now, that circle is broken.
2. Distraction, distraction, distraction. No, Christie has not been implicated in any way in the political payback scheme. But, a member of his senior office staff (Bridget Kelly) and his senior campaign staff (Stepien) have. And, with New Jersey Democrats forming a more robust supercommittee to ramp up the Christie investigation on Monday, it's easy to see much of Christie's top staff tied up for weeks if not months.
The practical impact of all of that distraction is considerable -- even if the investigation turns up nothing new. Here's why. It significantly complicates attempts by Christie's campaign aides to make the pivot toward positioning him -- from a policy and a political standpoint -- for the 2016 campaign. Not only will they now not likely have the time to do that sort of things (at least in the near term) but they are also likely to run into far more skepticism about the governor than they would have met with even a month ago. Recruiting major donors and early state activists just got a lot more complicated for Christie. And, with the investigation in New Jersey just starting up, this whole bridge fiasco could be a major distraction for much of this year. (Remember that Democrats in New Jersey have little incentive to speed things up; Christie is term limited out of office in 2017 so the goal, politically speaking, has to be to damage him heading into 2016.)
3. Surrogate-in-chief no longer. A month ago, any Republican running for any office in the country would have been thrilled to have Chris Christie in his/her state or district to campaign and, more importantly, raise money. While plenty still do, he represents more of a mixed blessing for candidates than he used to. Here's Florida state Senate president Don Gaetz to National Journal's Beth Reinhard on Christie's trip to Florida this weekend to raise money for Gov. Rick Scott: "I just hope he doesn't snarl up the traffic on the Pensacola bridge. Obviously Gov. Christie has got some image problems right now but I think he has a lot of admirers in Florida." Um, ouch.
Remember that Christie lobbied to head the Republican Governors Association this year in order to travel the country and build up political chits for his increasingly likely run for president in 2016. Christie will undoubtedly continue to travel for the RGA -- if only to show that the problems back in New Jersey aren't keeping him from his appointed national rounds . But, it's hard to imagine he will be able to do as much (or that candidates will want him to do as much) as if this cloud wasn't hanging over his administration at home.
None of the above disqualifies Christie from the 2016 presidential race. (Heck, we are still ranking him as the Republican with the best chance of being the Republican nominee!) But, to say that Christie has lost nothing in bridge-nado is also wrong. It has already cost him dearly and, depending on what these investigations find, the cuts could be even deeper in the coming weeks and months.