And so it begins! The 2016 presidential election is officially under way as we witness the first huge issue for the Republican frontrunner, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Opponents on both the right and left are hammering him over the "Bridgegate" scandal in which he is engulfed, and we will soon see how much intestinal fortitude the big man really has.
Cutting through the media hype, here is a frank analysis of the situation:
1.) We can’t overstate the obvious. First, if Christie discovered the truth behind lane closures on the George Washington Bridge but covered it up, his presidential aspirations end immediately. Far worse, if he ordered, or agreed to, the closures, he would face impeachment, and probably indictment.
Second, (and from this point let’s assume Christie didn’t know anything), the abject stupidity of those who closed several lanes on the world’s busiest bridge for political retribution (because the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee didn’t endorse Christie) may not be the dumbest thing ever, but since it could affect world history, ranks in the top three.
Here’s the kicker: If anyone was going to be blamed for the four days of gridlock — where a 30-minute commute turned into four hours on the first day of school and the anniversary of 9/11 — it wouldn’t have been the Fort Lee mayor, but Christie himself. Even the most nonpolitical person knows that closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge is an order that comes only from the top.
So let’s recap: Here’s a plan that engages in retribution that hurts your own guy, gets you fired and will possibly land you in federal prison. Brilliant.
2.) It was totally unnecessary. The re-election strategy was sound — tout bipartisan support in "blue" New Jersey as a trump card for the forthcoming presidential campaign. And Christie succeeded. So what if a few didn’t "play ball?" An endorsement (or lack thereof) by the mayor of Fort Lee has not, nor will it ever, affect national electoral politics. So why not just ignore him? Christie was going to win in a landslide, so anything jeopardizing that monumental victory was simply idiotic.
A comparison of Bridgegate and Watergate is in order. President Richard Nixon, like Christie, was a shoe-in for re-election, so there was no need to expend one second on anything that could derail the campaign and, ultimately, the administration. Whether rooted in paranoia or revenge, both actions show an unprecedented arrogance bordering on psychotic.
3.) Christie’s staff — not just those responsible, but all who knew — showed an unconscionable lack of foresight. Common sense tells us that at least some other high-ranking officials close to Christie knew what had transpired, even if they had nothing to do with it. If their mission was to insulate Christie by giving him plausible deniability, they were woefully wrong. These things can never be kept under wraps, as it’s usually not the crime, but the cover-up that bites one in the derriere.
A trusted adviser should have told the governor everything, sparing no detail, so that a press conference could have been held — in October, before the election — shedding light on the situation, firing those involved, and apologizing to the Fort Lee mayor. That way, Christie would have been in front of the scandal, managing it on his terms and preventing it from spiraling out of control. Instead, because staff presumably chose to hide it, the story has a life of its own, and Christie finds himself on the defensive, with the seed of doubt now sown as to "how much he really knew."
Most ironic, had Christie jumped on this before the election, he would have won by an even bigger margin.
Too bad for the governor that his people forgot the adage that "the truth shall set you free."
4.) Because of No. 3, the floodgates now open. Legitimate or not, attacks on Christie are coming from every direction on issues from A to Z, which will cumulatively take their toll on his up-to-now impenetrable armor. Before Bridgegate, these criticisms wouldn’t stick to Christie, whose stellar track record and brash charisma were enough to slam opponents into the dirt. But that doesn’t cut it anymore. Christie is bleeding and sharks from both parties are circling. Employing the "if you throw enough stuff against the wall, something will stick" attack mentality, Christie’s adversaries have him on the defensive for the foreseeable future.
5.) Despite his tough-guy persona, Christie has never been tested by adversity. He had universal support in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Yes, he faced a Democratic Legislature and accomplished great things, but expectations for success in a hyper-partisan atmosphere were low. He faced a weak, underfunded opponent for re-election and, truth be told, got lucky when facing a beleaguered and unpopular Jon Corzine in 2009, when it was a fantastically good time to be a Republican.
Times like these separate the men from the boys. How Christie responds to the largest crisis of his life will determine if higher office remains viable.
6.) Christie already faced the "Seinfeld factor" nationally. While Seinfeld’s New York humor played well on both coasts, much of it was lost on Americans in the heartland. Likewise, Christie’s brusque, in-your-face style would have been a significant obstacle to overcome in Middle America. Now matters are compounded exponentially, as dispelling the stereotypical rough-and-tumble New York/New Jersey political image, to which we on the coasts are desensitized, just got that much harder. Translation: This stuff doesn’t play well in places like Iowa and New Hampshire.
7.) Can we please stop the double standards from both sides? The left is making this out as far worse than the IRS scandal, in which the agency targeted conservative political activists, and many on the right want to give Christie a pass because "he didn’t know about it." They’re both off-base.
Christie supporters can’t have it both ways. If they exonerate the governor because they believe he was kept in the dark, the same courtesy must be extended to the president, since there is no hard evidence that he knew about the IRS actions. Yet, the right continues to blame Obama for what transpired. And while any form of political retribution using taxpayer-funded entities is flat-out wrong (and illegal), closing traffic lanes doesn’t remotely compare to deliberately targeting political opponents via the IRS. Yet, the outcry on the current scandal seems disproportionately greater than that of the IRS debacle. Go figure.
As an aside, it’s not surprising that some on the right are reveling in Christie’s troubles because he "isn’t conservative enough," hoping the scandal knocks him out of the presidential race. That mentality is imbecilic, especially since, outside Christie, the GOP’s field is so weak. Once again, the right has shown its preference for infighting over winning. Well, congratulations. You just made Hillary the biggest winner of Bridgegate.
The road for Christie may become a bridge to nowhere. Many have a hard time believing that he didn’t know, given the direct involvement of his deputy chief of staff, campaign officials and his handpicked high school friends at the port authority. Whatever the truth, the Democrats now have some killer ads in their arsenal.
But if there is one man capable of not just surviving but beating the scandal, it’s Chris Christie. His bull-in-a-china-shop, say-it-like-it-is style has earned him millions of loyal supporters, but it’s his penchant for telling the truth and taking risks that most shun that should earn him something else: Our trust. And I, for one, still love the ring of "President Christie." Keep fighting, governor.
Chris Freind is an independent columnist and commentator. His print column appears every Wednesday. He can be reached at [email protected].
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