This week, Chris Christie saw his once-promising political story begin to undergo an abridgment. The bet here is that the New Jersey governor’s presidential prospects will commence a slow but steady fade, like a summer tan in the winter months.
Why? Because this scandal highlights one of the central concerns about the New Jersey governor: That behind his blunt, brook-no-nonsense style lurks a petty, vindictive bully.
On Thursday, Christie denied any prior knowledge of his team’s scheming to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, who had declined to endorse him for reelection, by closing lanes onto the George Washington Bridge and thereby choking his city with traffic.
Maybe. But this scandal will make the bullying issue a central focus of reportorial inquiry. As we’ve already seen, there is ample smoke there; The New York Times recently reported on an array of other instances where Christie or his administration had gone after those who incurred the governor’s anger.
Over time, expect that focus to raise enough doubts about Christie to erode his presidential rationale and deprive him of the committed constituency he’d need to win the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
His potential voters are not, after all, foxhole allies who will stick with him through good times and bad. He was never going to be the favorite of the GOP’s Tea Party faction. Or the social issue conservatives. Or the Second Amendment absolutists. Or, for that matter, the fiscal purists.
His real appeal was to the Republican establishment, the pragmatists who value electability over ideological purity. As the popular Republican governor of a Democratic-leaning state, he was seen as a candidate who could attract independents as well as conservative Democrats to the GOP.
In the best of times, electability is not an argument designed to send primary voters into a swoon. And now that rationale will start to crumble in the crosscurrents of this continuing controversy.
Christie did his best at damage control Thursday with his stay-till-the-last-dog-dies press conference. He apologized and took responsibility — even while declaring over and over that he hadn’t known a thing about his team’s retribution. He declared himself heartbroken, embarrassed, and humiliated by the actions of his aides. He stressed what he had done and would do to make things right.
And yet, even if one credits Christie’s assertion that he had no inkling about any of this until the story broke on Wednesday — even if his account stands up as several investigations unfold — that hardly casts him in a confidence-inspiring light.
Take the governor at his word, and he’s a man who assembled a team of rascals, a manager who was obviously a poor judge of character, a chief executive who didn’t know what was happening within his own administration. And who didn’t have the curiosity to find out despite four days of traffic chaos in Fort Lee.
In this situation, it’s certainly better to be thought of as a naif than a bully, but neither image is a compelling calling card for presidential primary voters.
And to return to his image problem, though Christie declared that he wasn’t a bully, he certainly has acted like one in the past. Reporters are familiar with his penchant for labeling questions he dislikes as stupid or idiotic and for dressing down his critics. But his pugnacity and pettiness go well beyond that. Back in the 1990s, during his days as a county politician, Christie was sued for defamation over a false claim he made in a campaign ad — and later issued “a heartfelt apology” (sound familiar?) to his primary opponent as part of an out-of-court settlement.
Meanwhile, Kate Zernike of The New York Times recently examined a number of other incidents where Christie’s administration had punished or sent harsh messages to those who had aroused the governor’s ire.
Christie declared he wasn’t a bully, but he certainly has acted like one in the past.
For example, Richard Codey, a state senator who has filled in three times as acting governor, lost the occasional public-event police escort former governors enjoy after Christie blamed the lawmaker for delaying two of his nominees in the Senate. On the same day, a cousin and close friend of Codey’s were both fired from public jobs. Another mild critic of Christie’s said a close gubernatorial ally delivered an explicit, obscene verbal message from the governor. A political scientist on a redistricting panel opposed the plan Christie favored, and then saw the governor line-item veto $169,000 in funding for the Rutgers institute he was associated with.
The traffic scandal has made incidents like those news. Expect plenty more news in the months to come.Scot Lehigh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.