Chris Christie seems to be the man the Republicans are looking for. Conservatives, even some Tea Party folks, love his blunt talk, occasional Obama-bashing, and generally conservative record.
Moderate Republicans and party strategists see him as a winner, particularly after he won 20 percent of black voters and more half of the votes of Latinos and women in his reelection campaign in November. He is emerging as the Republican establishment candidate for 2016, and that person usually wins the party’s nomination.
But now his prospects may have been damaged. Some of Christie’s top aides stand accused of closing lanes on a New Jersey bridge last year in an attempt to punish the town of Fort Lee because its Democratic mayor refused to endorse the governor. The controversy not only calls into question the claims of bi-partisanship of Christie, who suggested in November he could unify not just New Jersey but the entire country, but also could implicate the governor in misleading the public. When previously asked about the lane closings, Christie has suggested his top aides had nothing to do with it.
At best, Christie has put people in his inner circle who felt it was appropriate to punish an entire town in this way for political reasons. Democrats are already suggesting the worst: Christie knew of this scheme himself, a charge the governor has denied.
Either way, this is a very damaging political scandal. To contrast with controversies surrounding Barack Obama, his top White House aides were not directly involved in how the IRS investigated Tea Party groups and sending e-mails to each other bragging about it. Whatever happened involving the attack on the embassy at Benghazi in 2012, the administration did not itself authorize the attack. The struggles of HealthCare.gov did not result from vindictiveness.
Christie’s opponents, even some Republicans, have long suggested his bipartisan appeal masks a politician who is at times mean. That charge will now have greater credence after what Christie’s aides have done.
It is two years before anyone will vote in the 2016 presidential primaries, but at first glance, this controversy has broader implications for the GOP. Few potential Republican presidential candidates had proven they could win swing voters, women or minorities, even in a state race, the way Christie has. Perhaps the party’s strongest candidate now has attached to him a controversy that will be easy for most voters to understand.
And it could be worse. If this controversy sticks, Christie may have a hard time even entering the 2016 race. He is likely to face investigations for much of the next year in New Jersey over how much and when he knew that his aides had authorized these lane closings. Mayors from towns in New Jersey may air similar complaints about the behavior of the governor’s staff. And Christie himself, who had become a media darling after his gubernatorial victory, will now be closely scrutinized by the press for any signs of overly aggressive behavior toward his political opponents.