Politics

01.08.14

Is This the Beginning of the End for Chris Christie?

Bridgegate has escalated into a genuine scandal for the New Jersey governor, who looks thuggish, corrupt, and utterly unsuited for national politics.

The George Washington Bridge is one of the busiest roadways in the United States, and in September, the Port Authority closed several lanes from what was described as a “traffic study,” snarling traffic in Fort Lee, New Jersey. But traffic studies require time for planning—officials have to accommodate commuters and other drivers. These closures, by contrast, were sudden and came with little warning to local authorities and the police.

For Democrats, this was a clear case of political retaliation; they accused Christie of closing the lanes to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing his reelection campaign. Christie, of course, denied the accusation, telling press that the closures were “unequivocally not” political, and had nothing to do with him or his staff.

But emails obtained by the New Jersey Herald News show the opposite:

Private messages between Governor’s Christie’s deputy chief of staff and two of his top executives at the Port Authority reveal a vindictive effort to create “traffic problems in Fort Lee” by shutting lanes to the George Washington Bridge and apparent pleasure at the resulting gridlock. […]

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Bridget Anne Kelly, one of three deputies on Christie’s senior staff, wrote to David Wildstein, a top Christie executive at the Port Authority, on Aug. 13, about three weeks before the closures. Wildstein, the official who ordered the closures and who resigned last month amid the escalating scandal, wrote back: “Got it.”

At a certain point, the Christie staffers begin to sound like characters in a second-rate Tarantino script. When one person declared that they felt “badly about the kids” who would be stuck in gridlock as a result of the closures, a Christie executive replied that they were “The children of Buono voters,” a reference to Christie’s Democratic opponent in the election.

This was no small act of political retaliation. By closing the lanes on the George Washington Bridge, the Port Authority plunged Fort Lee and surrounding towns into massive traffic jams. Countless commuters were kept from their homes and jobs and emergency services had a hard time responding to calls because of the gridlock. In short, both productivity and public safety suffered because of retaliatory actions from Christie’s staff.

It’s hard to imagine how this could get worse for Christie, since this is the kind of scandal that can derail political careers. Indeed, for as much as I try to avoid big pronouncements about someone’s political future, it’s hard to see how Christie recovers from this. Bridgegate has revealed that the governor is as thuggish and corrupt as he seemed to opponents in 2009. Or if that's unfair, then at least, he's someone surrounded by thuggish and corrupt people who have no business in the federal government, to say nothing of the White House. Indeed, the last ideologically heterodox Republican with ethical problems who won the White House had to resign for this exact behavior.

It’s still possible that Christie was removed from all of this, though, not particularly plausible. If that’s true, then his presidential ambitions could survive the scandal. But even if they do, he’s a dramatically weakened candidate, with diminished appeal to the Republican establishment in addition to his already frayed relationship with the GOP base.

At one point, Chris Christie seemed like the man who could save the Republican Party. Now, he looks like another liability.