In September, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the Office of the Governor of New Jersey, colluded to close local approach lanes to the George Washington Bridge leading into Manhattan. For days, commuters and local residents of Fort Lee were snarled in traffic jams lasting hours. Hours.
Anyone who has been stuck in traffic, or who is a regular commuter in the New York area, knows how incredibly frustrating it is to be in a car that is not moving. There’s anxiety over being late, and anxiety over being stranded in the weird transitional state that driving represents. You’re not where you were and you have not yet arrived where you are going. You are in limbo. There is a feeling of helplessness and anger at that helplessness. The only way to make the feeling of being stuck in traffic worse is the idea that someone is doing this to you on purpose. The idea that someone, somewhere, is malicious enough to steal your time, to actively make your life more miserable than it has to be for no other reason than to inflict pain, is horrible to contemplate, but that is exactly what happened in New Jersey this past autumn.
Governor Chris Christie, whose office was responsible for initiating the lane closures, has sworn up and down that he was not responsible, and that those who were responsible have been fired. His hope might be that the lengthy press conference he held when the story broke open this past week will be the peak of the troubles for his office. He’s deluded if he feels that is the case. More reporters are on the story, as well as federal investigators. It’s a virtual guarantee this scandal will get worse for the governor before it gets better. And it should.
Rumors that the governor and/or his people have been using his office to exact political retribution on his rivals have been swirling about for years now. It had gotten to the point that the rumors alone were threatening to become a problem in Christie’s prospective run for president in 2016. Now that there is concrete evidence that at least one staffer in his office was carrying out a political hit job, the threat is real.
This is not about legal or illegal. It is about right and wrong. Even if federal investigators find no criminal activity, if it is found that Christie ordered any sort of political retribution, that should disqualify him from further public office, and probably his current office, as well. Political rivalries are nothing new. Turf wars are common and expected, as politicians look to protect, preserve, or expand the powers of the office they are holding. But attacking another politician, and by extension their constituents, with methods that have real-world consequences, cannot be tolerated. Politicians cannot be expected to govern the institutions of the state effectively if they constantly have to watch their backs. The people cannot be expected to hold on to the last shred of faith they have in government if their leaders make their lives worse with petty acts of revenge. Politics is not a game, despite the seeming amounts of joy so many politicians get out of it.
If Christie was responsible for the lane closures, it shows a shocking separation between the governor and the people of the state. It shows that he believes the office of governor is the state, not that the state is the people. When those ideals begin to take hold of a politician, then said politician is the embodiment of the old axiom that power corrupts.
That’s the high-falutin’ reaction. But what does this mean for his chances in 2016? That’s all anyone seems to care about, anyways.
Well, it depends. The primaries are two years away, actual campaigning probably a year and half. If this scandal had hit in the thick of the process, Christie would very probably be sunk. The 2012 Republican primaries were a continuous search for the next candidate. It seemed like every month one frontrunner would fall and another would rise, only for some gaffe to start the cycle again. This may have been due to the field being full of cranks and whackos, but it also speaks to the difficulty in a campaign or candidate staying focused and lucky enough to win the nomination. Any little misstep is enough to send home a politician who had been having real dreams of the Oval Office.
The process of finding a candidate is a meat-grinder. It’s a ridiculous and shameful process, but it does do a fantastic job of culling the herd.
Whether or not this scandal derails Christie’s presidential aspirations depends on two factors. One: it needs to go away quickly. All the press that have descended on this story need to come away with nothing. No more emails, no more examples of retribution, no more embarrassments. Two: there can’t be any evidence that Christie ordered political retribution. It doesn’t even have to be a smoking gun, like a recorded phone call or a damning email. If one of his people testifies under oath that Christie ordered them to attack a rival, it’s all over for Christie.
Of course, even if Christie is able to weather this scandal, that is no guarantee that he wins the nomination. Chris Christie is coming off like an asshole. When he stood in front of the microphones the other day and declared that he was not a bully, in the minds of voters everywhere, the word ‘bully’ immediately became associated with Chris Christie. Voters can abide toughness, and they can abide being plainspoken. They want a leader that can get things done. But a petty asshole? If Christie can’t shake that image, scandal or no, he might not even make it to Iowa.