On Monday, Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, delivered his annual "State of the State" speech. It should have been the day when he set out his stall, clarified and amplified his policy positions on the national stage, and positioned himself as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 2016 after his robust re-election as Governor at the end of last year – but the speech was delivered under the shadow of a scandal.
Let's first evaluate Christie's position. He's been talked about as the Republican party's great hope, a conservative beloved by moderates, a straight-talking, straight-shooting vote-winner who could take the fight to the Democrats; a New Conservative. In November last year, despite New Jersey's strong Democrat leanings, he won re-election by twenty-two percentage points.
That deserves a closer look. New Jersey voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2012 and '08. They voted for Kerry in '04, and Al Gore in 2000, and Clinton in '96 and '92. You have to go back to 1988 before they last voted for a Republican presidential candidate. The two governors who preceded Christie were Democrats with comfortable majorities.
But despite that, Christie – who is a staunch conservative on all sorts of issues in ways that liberal East Coasters find distasteful, especially abortions and gay marriage – has a bigger majority in New Jersey than his party has in Texas or Arizona. It's nearly as big as those of Mike Beebe in Arkansas, the first state to actually put a policy of forcing illegal immigrants to self-deport, or Bobby Jindal in Louisiana. A Republican in a Democrat state, he has a bigger majority than the governor of Mississippi, for chrissakes. No wonder he's been talked about as a potential Presidential frontrunner.
But then there was the bridge.
The top of Manhattan is connected to New Jersey via the world's busiest road-bridge, the George Washington bridge. On the New Jersey side of the bridge is a small town called Fort Lee; once the movie capital of America in the days before Hollywood, it's now just a small town distinguished mainly for sitting astride the gateway to Manhattan.
Here is what we know. From the 9 - 13 September last year the three toll-lanes that connect Fort Lee with the bridge were reduced to a single lane, ostensibly for a "traffic study". This caused absolute gridlock, until they were reopened by executive order by Port Authority director David Foye.
The Port Authority spans both New Jersey and New York spheres of influence. Foye, who reopened the lanes, was an appointee of Democrat governor of New York Andrew Cuomo, while the lanes appear to have been ordered closed by a Chris Christie appointee, David Wildstein. It is alleged that this was in response to the mayor of Fort Lee's refusal to endorse Christie in his campaign for re-election.
And then there was Bridget Kelly. After the lanes re-opened there was an investigation, which dredged up an email from Kelly, who was Christie's deputy chief of staff, to Wildstein, which ignited the scandal. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” it said.
Other emails between officials mocked the mayor of Fort Lee's pleas to re-open the lanes, and imply that the closures are connected to the election battle between Christie and Democrat Barbara Buono. “I feel badly about the kids,” says an official whose name has not been released. “They are the children of Buono voters,” replies Wilder.
The question a lot of people are asking is this: was Fort Lee a rogue act by a couple of Christie's staff, as he has subsequently claimed? Or did the boss have a hand in it?
Actually, this doesn't matter all that much. Much more problematic for Christie, if he's paying attention, has been the lacklustre national response. A poll this week by the Pew Research Centre showed that the issue seems to have sunk without trace. Only 18 per cent of people surveyed said they were paying attention to Christie's apology and firing of Bridget Kelly (Christie didn't mince words with his former deputy chief of staff, calling her “stupid” and “deceitful;” he'd better hope she doesn't have any dirt to dish when he's on the national campaign-trail). On top of that, 60 per cent of respondents to Pew said their opinion of the governor had not changed since the scandal broke.
That sounds good for the guv'nor, right? Wrong. This is counter-intuitive, so bear with me here. Christie is already known as a bit of a political bruiser, so even if he didn't sanction the Fort Lee lane closures – which is entirely plausible – the fact that he is hiring the sort of people who will strike out, mafia-style, at mayors just for failing to endorse their boss, or to inconvenience people who they thought were voting for a Democrat candidate, shows a lack of political judgement. To risk a scandal of this magnitude over a mere endorsement by the mayor of a small town, especially when the race wasn't even remotely close to start with, is an act of appalling stupidity, even insanity, by his staff.
Therefore, the fact that people are dismissing this as just how Christie and New Jersey politics works – above all, not a surprise – is a very bad sign indeed for Chris Christie the aspiring candidate. It means that the scandal is feeding into a wider and already extant narrative: that Christie is a political bruiser., and worse: a bully.
“The last week,” Christie said in his State of the State, “has certainly tested this administration.” He's dead right. This particular scandal may have come out early enough, and probably been dealt with swiftly enough not to sink his hopes for the White House. Two years is a very long time in American politics. But it will certainly be a serious albatross around his neck when election season begins in earnest, and the image of arrogant Christie staff lashing out at those smaller and weaker than him is a compelling one.
If he learns the lesson that the American public has little tolerance for proto-Nixonion political thuggery, and – crucially – stops hiring people who operate that way, then Christie could still be a viable candidate in 2016. He's an immensely likeable public figure whose popularity with moderates shouldn't be underestimated, even if that will cause him problems with the hard-liners in the primary campaign, where he will likely be seriously outflanked on the right.
Really, more than anything, what the bridge scandal has shown is that the governor's got a lot of work to do before he's ready for prime-time. If he is going to face serious candidates like Paul Ryan or Marco Rubio in the primaries – not to mention, should he win the nomination, a heavyweight like Hilary Clinton or Joe Biden in the general election – he needs to shake off the stench of New Jersey politics and get rid of any staff that can't do the same, because, as they might say on the Jersey side of the George Washington bridge, this shit just ain't gonna cut it no more.