Is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) the no-nonsense leader who simply gets things done and can work across the aisle? Or is Christie a bully who deploys bare-knuckle tactics and doles out punishment to those who don't fall in line for him?
Which is it? That's what the emerging battle between Democrats and Christie's team will decide.
Ever since the Republican governor won a second term in commanding fashion last month, Democrats have stepped up their efforts to define Christie as the antithesis of the bipartisan, results-oriented leader he so successfully pitched himself as during the campaign. It's a recognition of Christie's status as the most formidable potential 2016 Republican contender, in their eyes.
The latest dustup comes over a decision by a pair of Christie appointees (who have since resigned) to order the closure of two access lanes from Fort Lee, N.J., onto the George Washington Bridge into New York. Democrats allege the move was payback against the mayor of Fort Lee, who did not endorse Christie. The governor denies any wrongdoing. The Washington Post's Philip Rucker reports from New Jersey:
The goal is to puncture the image Christie carefully cultivated of himself since Superstorm Sandy in 2012 as a bipartisan bridge-builder and trustworthy, if pugnacious, executive. His detractors say the episode reveals Christie as who they say he really is — a nasty and corrupt New Jersey politician who bullies those standing in his way.
“It undercuts his key argument that he’s a straight shooter,” said Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Czin. “It highlights the worst about his bombast and his condescension.”
In interviews here this week, one Democratic leader said the “Bridge-gate” episode reveals the Christie administration’s “Nixon-like dirty tricks,” while another likened it to Watergate. A third speculated about impeachment.
The entire episode tells us at least a couple of things. One, Christie has entered a new stage in his political career where his every move will be dissected by the opposition. That includes not only Democrats but also fellow Republicans who are not keen on him becoming the 2016 standard-bearer. Yes, he was on the national radar for much of his first term. But nothing like this and what's to come.
Second, the unfolding battle to define Christie will be as much, if not more, about his personality and style of governance as it is about policy. One of Christie's chief strengths back home has been the perception that he speaks his mind and projects an authenticity that other politicians don't.
"I'm not a bully. But what I am is a fighter," Christie said in a September interview with CBS News.
But if Democrats have their way, the perception of a different Christie, one who pulls strings to topple enemies in private despite what he says in public, will emerge.