One of the little preliminary races that pundits have been placing some early bets on, years out from the 2016 presidential election, is whether the Establishment Guy in the GOP primary would be Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, or New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Walker is decidedly on the conservative side of the Establishment's radar screen of electable candidates, while Christie is... not.
The race may just have been settled, as Chris Christie gets stuck in scandal traffic, leaving Walker to zoom past on his motorcycle and roar down Exit 2016. Christie's mess is pretty bad. It's also bizarre, and faintly absurd, especially given the almighty curb-stomp victory he was cruising toward in his last re-election campaign... characteristics that are likely to give the story legs, thanks to the media's astonishing double standard for the two parties. Yes, you will now get to enjoy the high dudgeon of a press corps that doesn't much care whether anyone is ever held to account for Benghazi, the IRS scandal, Fast and Furious, et cetera, ad nauseum. The people who thought Barack Obama barricading half of America during Shutdown Theater was a non-story will flip their lids over a couple of blocked lanes on the George Washington Bridge. That's how it works, and if Governor Christie's staff think they can hide behind charges of hypocrisy against the press - or if they thought they'd get a break because Governor Christie gets along so well with President Obama - they're about to learn how badly mistaken they are.
Conservative Republicans and Tea Party folks already annoyed with Christie, and deeply concerned about abuses of power in the Barack Obama age of vengeful banana republic government, are not going to forget this story any time soon. The New York Times has the latest developments:
A series of newly obtained emails and text messages shows that Gov. Chris Christie???s office was closely involved with lane closings on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge in September, and that officials closed the lanes in what appeared to be retribution against the mayor whose town was gridlocked as a result.
Mr. Christie has insisted that his staff and his campaign office had nothing to do with the local lane closings, and said that they were done as part of a traffic study.
But the emails show that Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff in Mr. Christie???s office, gave a signal to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to close the lanes about two weeks before the closings occurred.
???Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,??? she emailed David Wildstein, Mr. Christie???s close friend from high school, and one of his appointees at the Port Authority, which controls the bridge.
After the emails were released on Wednesday, Mr. Christie canceled his one public event for the day, which had been billed as an announcement of progress in the recovery from Hurricane Sandy.
Mr. Christie???s handpicked chairman of the Port Authority, David Samson, was also involved in the closings, according to the emails, which describe his efforts to ???retaliate??? against New York officials who had not been told of the changes and sought to ease the gridlock.
Here's the part that could blow a hole in the S.S. Christie for President at the water line:
The emails indicate that Mr. Christie???s staff and his associates at the Port Authority were closely aware of the political context. Mr. Christie, a Republican, was leaning on local Democratic officials to endorse his re-election bid so that he could then seek his party???s presidential nomination in 2016 by arguing that he was the candidate who could attract bipartisan support in a blue state.
The mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, is a Democrat and did not endorse Mr. Christie. In the emails and texts released Wednesday, Mr. Christie???s staff and appointees were gleeful when the abrupt lane closings gridlocked the town for four days, beginning with the first day of school and including the anniversary of Sept. 11. Mr. Sokolich, who had not been informed of the closings, texted Bill Baroni, the governor???s top appointee at the Port Authority, asking for ???help??? because the lane closings were making children on buses late to school.
???Is it wrong that I am smiling???? Mr. Wildstein texted Ms. Kelly.
???No,??? she texted back.
???I feel badly about the kids,??? he texted.
???They are the children of Buono voters,??? she said, referring to Mr. Christie???s Democratic opponent, Barbara Buono, who was trailing consistently in the polls and lost by a wide margin.
The nasty tone of these emails is going to haunt the Christie people as well. From NorthJersey.com:
Christie???s campaign manager exchanged messages with Wildstein the next day, and he blamed [Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich.]
???The mayor is an idiot,??? Bill Stepien, Christie???s campaign manager, wrote to Wildstein on Sept. 18, in reaction to the Wall Street Journal story about local officials??? complaints.
???When (sic) some, lose some,??? Stepien wrote.
Wildstein responded to Stepien: ???It will be a tough November for this little Serbian,??? an apparent reference to the Fort Lee mayor, who Baroni also referred to as ???Serbia??? in text messages.
Stepien was promoted earlier this week to chairman of the state Republican Party and is an advisor to the Republican Governors Association, which Christie now leads.
These communications all came to light because Democrat legislators subpoenaed them as part of an investigation into the lane-closing chaos. Baroni and Wildstein resigned their Port Authority positions last month. The one thing missing thus far, the element that would initiate a nuclear scandal reaction, is evidence that Governor Christie was aware of these activities, or directly ordered them. It's probably "game over" if anything like that turns up.
But we're still left with several people very close to the Governor going off the rails, which cannot help but reflect on his management skills... and the Christie Administration spent the past month strenuously denying the charges of political payback these emails would seem to validate. After getting a bellyful of Obama's claims that he doesn't know what anyone in his administration is doing until he reads about it in the papers, many Republicans aren't in a mood to hear it from one of their own.
Questions about damage to Christie's much-desired "electability" will nag at those who are inclined to give the Governor a personal pass on the antics of his subordinates, or who think the whole controversy is overblown, especially given the colorful history of dirty tricks in the Tri-State area. (Note to anyone who thinks this is overblown: that stuff about children being made late to school is going to put a lot of air in the scandal balloon. If you doubt it, you haven't been paying much attention to national politics over the past thirty years.)
You've got to wonder how anyone could be foolish enough to create the email paper trail these people did, and that will naturally lead to unflattering speculation about the Governor who hired and defended them. At least Obama's subordinates took the precaution of creating an illegal secret email network for embarrassing message traffic.
Added wrinkles to the current political environment: Media Democrats are desperately looking for something, anything, they can use to get ObamaCare off the front pages; conservatives and Tea Partiers just finished reading a bunch of stories about how the GOP Establishment regards them as a worse threat than Democrats, and has plans to wipe them out in the primaries, making them less than thrilled by stories of the prospective Establishment heavyweight playing hardball with those who don't fall into line.
I've seen some online grumbling that this whole scandal is a gift-wrapped New Year's present to Hillary Clinton, as embarrassing documents find their way into eager media hands and fuel a controversy that damages one of her major opponents for the 2016 general election. Be that as it may, Hillary's campaign and their media boosters didn't create these documents. I'm rather weary of Republicans expressing shock and dismay that the clubs they hand opponents to beat them with are swung with exceptional vigor by hypocritical headline writers.
Maybe Governor Christie can distance himself from this by clearly demonstrating he had no knowledge of it, cleaning house, and repairing the damage to his managerial image caused by such abusive behavior from his high-level subordinates. He's got a few years to work on building that 2016 campaign. Concerns about his electability can be addressed by demonstrating that he still has it. He might get some cover from the mighty engine of corruption chugging away in New York City at the moment. And Christie is just enough of a smart-aleck to start sending reworded Obama press releases to his media inquisitors, noting that they didn't seem terribly concerned about barricades just a few months ago. Hopefully he understands that the burden of proof for showing that Bridge-gate happened completely behind his back is much higher for him, due to his party affiliation.
Update: Christie declared Wednesday afternoon: "What I've seen today for the first time is unacceptable." He really is going to throw Obama press releases right back in the media's faces and challenge them to react differently because he's got an "R" after his name.