Why I Was Wrong About Chris Christie

He wasn’t so smart or post-partisan, and may pay the price as a presidential hopeful.

NRCC keynoter: N.J. Gov. Chris Christie
National Journal
Ron Fournier
Jan. 30, 2014, 4:34 a.m.

A year ago, I wrote: “The smartest move in polit­ics today is to move against Wash­ing­ton and the two ma­jor parties. And the smartest man in polit­ics may be Chris Christie.” I take it back.

At the time, the New Jer­sey gov­ernor had channeled the pub­lic’s dis­gust with polit­ic­al dys­func­tion, chas­tising House Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers for re­fus­ing to al­low a vote on a Hur­ricane Sandy re­lief bill. Christie said the game-play­ing that de­railed the re­lief bill showed “why the Amer­ic­an people hate Con­gress.” He ac­cused his own party’s lead­er­ship for “selfish­ness,” “du­pli­city,” and mor­al fail­ure.

His ap­prov­al rat­ing topped 70 per­cent.

Now his num­bers are drop­ping, be­cause he wasn’t so smart. Rather than stay true to his post-par­tis­an im­age, Christie ran a hy­per-polit­ic­al gov­ernor’s of­fice that fo­cused re­lent­lessly on a big re-elec­tion win to po­s­i­tion him for a 2016 pres­id­en­tial race. In this zero-sum gain cul­ture, Christie en­abled (if not dir­ectly ordered) an in­fam­ous ab­use of power: the clos­ure of traffic lanes on the George Wash­ing­ton Bridge in a fit of polit­ic­al re­tri­bu­tion.

If not crim­in­al, it was pretty damn stu­pid. His repu­ta­tion is in tat­ters. Re­port­ing a poll con­duc­ted jointly with ABC News, Philip Ruck­er and Scott Clem­ent of the Wash­ing­ton Post wrote:

Christie has be­nefited from the per­cep­tion that he has unique ap­peal among in­de­pend­ents and some Demo­crats, a repu­ta­tion the gov­ernor burn­ished with his 2013 reelec­tion in his strongly Demo­crat­ic state.

But that im­age has been tar­nished, the sur­vey finds. More Demo­crats now view Christie un­fa­vor­ably than fa­vor­ably, with in­de­pend­ents di­vided. Re­pub­lic­ans, mean­while, have a luke­warm opin­ion, with 43 per­cent view­ing him fa­vor­ably and 33 per­cent un­fa­vor­ably. Over­all, 35 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans see him fa­vor­ably and 40 per­cent un­fa­vor­ably

Christie has fallen from first to third among po­ten­tial GOP pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates, ac­cord­ing to the Wash­ing­ton Post-ABC News poll, be­hind Rep. Paul Ry­an and former Flor­ida Gov. Jeb Bush.

A plur­al­ity of re­spond­ents said the bridge epis­ode rep­res­ents a pat­tern of ab­use in Christie’s of­fice. While most Re­pub­lic­ans give him the be­ne­fit of the doubt, 60 per­cent of Demo­crats and half of all in­de­pend­ents don’t think it was an isol­ated in­cid­ent. There is good reas­on for the sus­pi­cion.

First, the gov­ernor is deeply en­gaged in the minu­tia of his of­fice, an op­er­a­tion that doesn’t dis­crim­in­ate between polit­ics and policy. As the New York Times re­por­ted this week in a must-read ana­lys­is:

Mr. Christie has said that he had not been aware of his of­fice’s in­volve­ment in the man­euver, and noth­ing has dir­ectly tied to him to it. But a close look at his op­er­a­tion and how in­tim­ately he was in­volved in it, de­scribed in in­ter­views with dozens of people — Re­pub­lic­an and Demo­crat, in­clud­ing cur­rent and former Christie ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, elec­ted lead­ers and le­gis­lat­ive aides — gives cre­dence to the puz­zle­ment ex­pressed by some Re­pub­lic­ans and many Demo­crats in the state, who ques­tion how a de­tail-ob­sessed gov­ernor could have been un­aware of the clos­ings or the ef­fort over months to cov­er up the polit­ic­al motive.

In oth­er words, how stu­pid do you think we are, gov­ernor? Christie either knew or should have known that his ad­min­is­tra­tion was snarling Fort Lee in traffic and en­dan­ger­ing lives.

Second, the gov­ernor’s team is now un­der siege. Everything they’ve done and will do is cast in sus­pi­cion. Ac­cus­a­tions that pre­vi­ously might have brought them a be­ne­fit of the doubt are now filtered by scan­dal. Like the Times story today about pres­sure ap­plied to the Hoboken may­or to sup­port a de­vel­op­ment pro­ject favored by Christie. The lever­age his team used against the may­or: flood re­lief linked to Hur­ricane Sandy.

The Christie ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ac­tions were little dif­fer­ent from the game-play­ing of the House Re­pub­lic­ans that drew his wrath a year ago. A politi­cian try­ing to smartly dis­tance him­self from Wash­ing­ton can’t be a hy­po­crite.

Hav­ing leaned too far over my skis a year ago, I’m not pre­pared to write Christie’s polit­ic­al ob­it­u­ary today. But there is a grow­ing sense of how it might read, start­ing with what I wrote after Christie’s mea culpa news con­fer­ence Jan. 9:

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4658) }}

While Christie said many of the right things in a lengthy and wide-ran­ging new con­fer­ence — the con­trast to Pres­id­ent Obama’s re­sponse to 2013 con­tro­ver­sies was un­mis­tak­able — his ac­tions were far from dis­pos­it­ive. We don’t know how voters in New Jer­sey and bey­ond will as­sess his truth­ful­ness. We can’t pre­dict wheth­er the in­vest­ig­a­tions will un­cov­er more wrong­do­ing. And we need to find out wheth­er the George Wash­ing­ton Bridge in­cid­ent is isol­ated, or part of a pat­tern of ab­use.

In the three weeks since that column, polls sug­gest a good num­ber of Amer­ic­ans doubt his vera­city and won­der wheth­er he was run­ning a cor­rupt ad­min­is­tra­tion. Voters aren’t dumb.

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