The indictments of Bridget Ann Kelly and and Bill Baroni were widely expected as there appeared to be clear evidence that the duo orchestrated the closure of several lanes of traffic in Fort Lee as a bit of political payback against that city's mayor, who refused to endorse Christie in his sweeping 2013 reelection victory. (Yes, the stupidity of punishing someone for not endorsing Christie in a race in which he romped to victory is alarming.) More surprising (at least to me) was the guilty plea of David Wildstein, a high school acquaintance of the governor and a former Port Authority official, for conspiracy to commit fraud, among other charges.
Wildstein's guilty plea will stoke speculation about what evidence (if any) he has to back up claims he previously made that Christie was aware of the lane closures in real time. As the New York Times' Kate Zernike and Marc Santora wrote today:
Mr. Wildstein told several people in the Christie administration that he had discussed the lane closings with the governor as they were happening, an assertion the governor denies. And through his lawyer, Alan Zegas, he reiterated the claim that “evidence exists” that Mr. Christie knew about the closings as they occurred.
Obviously, if Wildstein managed to produce unimpeachable evidence backing up his claim, Christie's career — not just as a presidential candidate but as a public figure of any sort — is over. But let's say that Wildstein never produces any evidence and that neither Kelly nor Baroni implicate Christie in any way, shape or form.
Even under that scenario, Bridgegate has functioned as a massive impediment to Christie's chances of winning the Republican presidential nomination. Witness this scene from a recent Christie trip to New Hampshire, as recounted by the Times' Michael Barbaro:
“When they told me you were coming here, I went down to make sure — personally — that the bridges were going to be open,” [a man in the diner] said.The room erupted in laughter.Mr. Christie took it sportingly. “You know,” he said, “I’ve heard there are a lot of wiseguys at this diner this morning.”“Which direction is the bridge?” he said, playing along. “I’ll make sure it’s open, too.”
Sure, Christie handled that situation about as well as he could have. But the very fact that people in New Hampshire a) know about the bridge story and b) associate it so closely with Christie is a big problem for the New Jersey governor.
What's indisputable — no matter where the story goes from here — is that Bridgegate went public at the exact wrong time for Christie's presidential hopes. In a world without the bridge problems, Christie would have spent the first six months of 2014 touring the country on a sort of victory tour. To every donor, activist and potential staffer, he could make the case that he had cracked the code on how Republicans can win in blue states, with women and with Hispanic voters. And he'd have been right.
Instead, Christie spent those six months fending off questions about what he knew and when he knew it. The best-case scenario for Christie in all of this was as a boss who was woefully unaware of what people that worked for him and he trusted were doing. Obviously, that's not a terrific best-case scenario if you want to run for president.
Momentum and buzz are a strange things in the world of politics. They're hard to build and even harder to reclaim once you've lost them. That's where Christie finds himself today — lost amid a glut of would-be aspirants to the top (or even second) tier of the coming presidential race.
Here's Christie's problem going forward: If the first or second thing every voter in Iowa or New Hampshire thinks when meeting him is "Oh, that's the bridge guy," he's doomed. The longer this story stays in the public eye — and the indictments of Baroni and Kelly along with Wildstein's guilty plea suggest it ain't going anywhere fast — the harder it will be for Christie to get away from that association with the bridge.
Timing is everything in politics. And the timing of the Bridgegate scandal has been absolutely atrocious for those who want to see Chris Christie elected president.