Chris Christie’s critics savor his misfortune
By: Maggie Haberman
January 9, 2014 05:05 AM EST
Chris Christie is learning that being a Party of One can be pretty lonely when times get tough.
Democrats predictably condemned the New Jersey governor after a bombshell report Wednesday tied one of his top staffers to a burgeoning scandal that’s already been dubbed “Bridge-gate.” More notable was the dearth of Republicans who rose to Christie’s defense — and, privately, the schadenfreude expressed by some of them that a man who’s never been shy about taking shots at others was suddenly on the receiving end.
“All these people who feel like he’s bullied and he’s put them in a horse-collar hold … will feel free to say, ‘See, I told you so,’” said one Republican who has worked with Christie.
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That sense of glee from detractors “is going to be worse than they anticipate,” said the Republican, adding that local critics but also detractors in some of the early presidential states might now feel emboldened to take shots at a man who 24 hours ago was seen by many as the most likely GOP standard-bearer in 2016.
Many of Christie’s Republican critics weren’t ready to pounce publicly — he’s still a powerful governor, and no one knows where the scandal will turn next. But more than a few quietly savored the turnabout of Christie — a man who has attacked both parties with relish, and who’s known less for his policy positions than for the sheer force of his singular personality — under attack.
Christie has not been directly implicated, and he said in his statement Wednesday that a staffer had misled him. But the crisis, at the very least, has put at risk Christie’s reputation as a no-nonsense executive and leader.
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The scandal exploded midmorning Wednesday when The Record (N.J.) reported that a top Christie aide was aware ahead of time about lane closures on the heavily trafficked George Washington Bridge. Critics had alleged the partial closure was political payback for a Democratic mayor who refused to endorse Christie’s reelection — and now they had what they saw as powerful evidence in the form of email correspondence subpoenaed by a legislative committee.
Christie had been adamant that none of his staffers was involved in the lane closures.
More than six hours passed before Christie’s office released a statement, time the governor spent huddled with top aides to devise a strategy to address the crisis. Inquiring reporters and restive supporters were met with radio silence from his aides. In the meantime, fresh stories were published about the damage caused by the resulting traffic congestion around the city of Fort Lee, where the closures took place.
When Christie finally surfaced with a late afternoon statement, Christie called the conduct unacceptable and vowed, without naming names, that “people will be held responsible.”
(Also on POLITICO: Chris Christie: ‘People will be held responsible’)
But the lengthy delay left people who might be inclined to be helpful with little to say, not wanting to get in front of the governor’s own words.
“There’s nothing coming out of the governor’s office — no statement, no talking points, no anything,” said former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, a mentor of Christie who has recently expressed disappointment in how the governor handled a political dispute involving his son, state Sen. Tom Kean Jr.
“When there’s a leader, people these days, in modern politics, sort of wait for that,” he said a short time before Christie’s office emailed a statement to the press. “And they haven’t come. So people sort of don’t know what to say.”
Even Christie supporters were privately dumbstruck that a former prosecutor would find himself at the mercy of legislative subpoenas. They recalled that his office had already gone through a who-what-when scandal involving emails when education official Bret Schundler was fired in 2010 over a flap about a botched application for Race to the Top funds. They wondered aloud about what the next turn of the screw would be.
The details of the bridge incident are complicated and have generally been drowned out by the larger headlines — “scandal,” “coverup,” “traffic mess.”
But the nature of the scandal — a traffic jam that lasted four days — touches one of the most common frustrations of everyday life. That means it could penetrate with voters in a way other negative stories about Christie might not.
Christie has long prided himself on being a one-man band, divorced from the toxic political swamp of Washington and beholden to few party elders. His decision to take on Kean Jr. was an example of that. So was his robust — some said excessive — criticism of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) last year over federal relief after Hurricane Sandy.
During his reelection battle, he sought out Democrats far more than he did other Republicans. He painted himself as a truth-teller who would do the right thing no matter which party it offended.
But Christie is also known for his insular circle of advisers. A dearth of dissenting voices in his immediate orbit has long been a criticism of the governor.
“He talks to very few people,” Kean told POLITICO.
The Republican who’s worked with Christie was more blunt: “Christie doesn’t think anyone in the room is as smart as Christie.”
As down and out as Christie appears to be at this moment, how Democrats and Republicans respond in the coming weeks carries its own risks. Any allegation against Christie that goes too far or doesn’t hold up will be used to discredit the broader case against him. Any number of other officials who lack Christie’s political skills have found reports of their demise to be exaggerated.
“Christie himself says he was not involved, which I do not believe he would say if he was, so that is that,” said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos. “And I do not believe Americans are going to be surprised that politics has broken out in the political world … or that politics in New Jersey, ain’t beanbag.”
When the bridge flap first made national headlines after Election Day and questions arose about the role of Christie’s appointees to the agency controlling the bridge, it took a full week for Christie’s team to respond. The governor then held a grim-faced, answer-every-question news conference about whether his office was involved in the lane closures. The answer, he said, was unequivocal: Of course not.
But that defense collapsed in dramatic fashion on Wednesday. Text messages and emails sent and received by his longtime friend, David Wildstein, one of two Port Authority officials to leave their jobs over the scandal, showed people reveling in the misery of the people affected by the traffic jams. The kids stuck in traffic on school buses because of the lane closures, he wrote in one message, were “children of Buono voters” — a reference to Christie’s Democratic opponent in the governor’s race, Democrat Barbara Buono.
That line “may turn out to be much more of a threat to Christie’s political future than Barbara Buono ever was,” Weekly Standard writer William Kristol, an occasional Christie critic, quipped in an email.
Christie’s one-paragraph statement that said he was “misled” about staff involvement likely won’t go far enough to quell the questions surrounding the mess. What will matter is how he handles it going forward, and what else emerges.
“The core question people have in a crisis is, what kind of person are you?’” said Bruce Haynes, a Republican operative at the political consulting firm Purple Strategies. “Christie’s strength is he can answer that by being who he has always been — tough but fair. He’s a prosecutor, that’s his DNA. If there’s wrongdoing, he should find it, punish it, move on to the next thing. That’s who he is and has been, and what people will expect of him now and going forward.”