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:
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.