Two months ago, he was being touted as the nominal front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Now, his prospects for claiming the White House are clouded by controversy. His first real effort at damage control came Thursday, when he made a public statement, apologizing to the people of New Jersey and announcing the dismissal of two key members of his team. He then answered reporters’ questions for more than 90 minutes. It was a start in containing the damage, but only that. Investigations will follow, and no one can know where they will lead.
Christie is on the defensive because of a petty act of vengeance by aides and associates, who apparently decided to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., for not endorsing the governor’s reelection bid. The damning language that turned controversy into full-blown crisis on Wednesday will become a memorable entry in the lexicon of American politics: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
That was the message e-mailed by Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, to David Wildstein, a longtime Christie friend and one of the governor’s two top appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
“Got it,” Wildstein e-mailed back. A few weeks later, major traffic tie-ups occurred around Fort Lee because several lanes on the bridge were closed.
None of the released e-mails touched Christie directly, and he insisted in a written statement Wednesday and repeatedly during his news conference Thursday that he knew nothing about his office’s involvement until the messages became public.
Christie adopted a far different personality Thursday from the one he had when the issue first arose late last year. Back then, he was dismissive and defiant about suggestions that he or his aides were involved in the traffic mess.
On Thursday, he was repentant about the fact that what he had said earlier was not the truth. He said he was “embarrassed and humiliated” by what his aides did. He tried to explain how someone whose campaign slogan was “leadership now” could be as forceful and commanding as he claimed in the reelection effort only to have a staff go rogue, as CNN’s John King put it, and then lie to him about what happened.
As with the early stages of political scandals, broad conclusions about where they will lead and what damage will be incurred are risky. The controversy has touched off a fevered round of speculation about just how badly Christie has been hurt and how much this episode could hamper his chances of winning the GOP nomination or general election in 2016.
Among those watching closely, two thoughts have emerged: If there is anything that ties Christie directly to what happened, the controversy will probably be fatal to his political aspirations. If not, the issue is whether this becomes a moment that fades quickly or whether it leaves lasting doubts about the governor’s character and temperament.
A Republican strategist with close ties to the party’s establishment wing, where Christie has been strongest, said before the news conference that the controversy had caused some reassessment of Christie among those who had been predisposed to consider him the GOP’s strongest candidate.
The reasons are twofold. First, the instinct to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich reflected bush-league thinking. Christie did not need the mayor’s endorsement to win reelection. And he had other Democrats backing him. Republicans cannot stomach the idea of a 2016 campaign with a nominee who isn’t politically competent and adept. Christie and his team had earned a reputation for competence. Now that’s called into question.
His apology at the top of his news conference no doubt helped ease that concern, but the more important question is whether his contrition ultimately is viewed as a genuine change in his otherwise aggressive posture or merely a short-term strategy to get through this controversy. From here forward, anything that reinforces the image of a belligerent politician will be all the more problematic for him.
Christie announced two important personnel moves in the wake of Wednesday’s revelations. He fired Kelly, who wrote the most damaging e-mail, which was widely expected. Less predictable was his decision to cut ties with Bill Stepien, one of his closest advisers and his campaign manager during the reelection effort. Stepien was slated to become chairman of the state Republican Party and a consultant at the Republican Governors Association, which Christie now chairs. “Actions have consequences,” Christie said.
Some Democrats volunteered their assessment that in the early stages of his news conference, Christie was handling himself rather deftly. But one Republican strategist, Mike Murphy, tweeted as the session moved past the one-hour mark: “Christie presser is a microcosm of strength and weakness of his style; v[ery] strong start, then a troubling excess of first person singular.”
The news conference will not end the scandal. There will be further investigations led by Democratic legislators in Trenton and perhaps elsewhere. The sight of Christie on the defensive will embolden his Democratic opponents to challenge him in other areas.
Christie is fortunate that the presidential campaign is well into the future — although not quite as remote as he tried to suggest on Thursday — and that the voters in the early primary and caucus states are paying minimal attention to any of the maneuverings underway.
“This probably costs him the momentum he had in the national space and potentially complicates the finance side at the least,” said one GOP strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer his analysis. “If it spirals out control, it could be ultimately very, very bad, but I don’t think we are there yet.”
David Axelrod, President Obama’s longtime chief political strategist, said he expects Christie will survive unless the trail of what happened on the George Washington Bridge leads back to him.
“Otherwise, I am very, very reluctant to call it ‘fatal,’ ” Axelrod said in an e-mail. “One of the great flaws we have in our world is an impulse to judge these things in the moment as existential crises, of which, it turns out, there are very few in the annals of politics. If he deals firmly with the offender, and the trail doesn’t lead directly back to him, my bet is that this will be a, well, bump in the road.”
Another Democrat, who has been through several presidential campaigns, said Christie’s actions in the coming days will be crucial and closely watched. He said that if the governor handles the controversy skillfully, and that what he said Thursday holds up, this would be an issue, but not a dominant one, in the Republican primaries.
But this Democrat also said that the residue of the bridge scandal could spill into a general-election campaign, should Christie win the nomination. The reason has to do with the importance of temperament in the assessment of voters. “In the general [election], there is a fine line between strong temperament and risky temperament,” he wrote in an
That points to the major challenges facing Christie: Can he tame his volatile personality? Will his zest for combat betray him in the future? Can he retain the forcefulness and bluntness that have made him attractive to voters in New Jersey and to many in his party nationally, while reassuring them that he is not a bully with a yen for political retribution? His performance Thursday, however well judged, did not provide a definitive answer.