“Nobody drowned at Watergate.” That was a popular Republican slogan contrasting the scandal that consumed Richard Nixon’s presidency with Ted Kennedy’s lethal misadventures at Chappaquiddick.
The sentiment, if not the exact catchphrase, has returned in the wake of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s “Bridgegate” scandal. In September, the Port Authority shut down two of three access lanes connecting Fort Lee, N.J. to the George Washington Bridge for four days. Horrific traffic jams predictably ensued.
The lane closures happened under the guise of a traffic study, but emails suggest Christie aides engineered them as political payback against a Democratic mayor who failed to endorse the governor’s reelection campaign. “These are the children of [Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara] Buono voters,” soon-to-be-ousted Port Authority executive David Wildstein wrote of the inconvenienced in a text message.
As cable news programs converged on the burgeoning scandal, some Republicans countered that NSA snooping, IRS machinations against the Tea Party, Operation Fast and Furious, and Benghazi all showed some in the press weren’t always interested in serious allegations against those in power. (A few outlets even christened the Christie scandal “Bridgeghazi.”)
Others pointed to Christie’s lengthy press conference, in which he denied any knowledge of retribution against political foes and pledged to hold those involved accountable. Christie fired Bridget Anne Kelly, but Barack Obama kept Kathleen Sebelius and Eric Holder in place. (It’s also worth noting that many conservatives felt no obligation to defend Christie at all.)
Though the traffic machinations were foolish and dangerous, the reason it has become a top news story is that Christie is a likely presidential candidate. Very early polling suggested he might be the Republican who is most competitive with presumed Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
Relatively few people pay close attention to scandals involving presidential candidates nearly three years before the election. Most of those who do are partisans whose allegiances won’t be easily moved by the latest news cycle.
But Christie is still an unknown commodity to lots of ordinary voters. If the scandal doesn’t deal a blow to his presidential aspirations by derailing his second term as governor, it could still inform people’s first impressions of him.
Christie’s personality is what made him a national figure in the first place. He emerged in YouTube clips that showed him arguing with public sector union members and more than holding his own as taxpayers in the audience clapped. He combined a Jersey attitude with a buck-stops-here management style.
By presenting himself as an average guy with common sense, Christie appealed to independents and pragmatic Democrats. By his choice of targets, Christie endeared himself to many conservatives. And he didn’t come across as apologetic about his Republicanism, which distinguished him from other blue-state moderates.
Over time, the compromises Christie made to remain viable in Democratic New Jersey, as well as his putative alliance with Obama against House Republicans over Hurricane Sandy, alienated some conservatives. But he still looked tough and competent, practical without being stiff. He won a broad cross-section of Garden State voters last November.
The hope was that Christie’s personality would overcome the dour, stilted images of recent Republican nominees. Bob Dole was old and cranky, Mitt Romney robotic and inauthentic. The fun of John McCain’s 2000 campaigns had largely dissipated by the time he actually won the nomination in 2008. Christie might even be able to make social conservatism more palatable without the Sunbelt evangelical flavor that accompanied George W. Bush’s.
Yet there’s a fine line between looking tough, which voters like, and seeming mean, which they don’t. Christie had to verbally deny being a bully. When Nixon denied being a crook, he persuaded many Americans that he was one.
If Christie’s categorical denials of any foreknowledge about Bridgegate are proven false, none of this will matter. But even if no further evidence comes out against him, the scandal could still hurt by turning one of his biggest assets into a liability.
The details of what happened at the George Washington Bridge are easy enough to understand. Most voters can relate to the frustrations of being stuck in traffic. Fiscal conservatives fare best when they are seen as sticking up for the little guy against the political class, not economic elites.
This episode confirms basic conservative assumptions about government—instead of being selfless guardians of the public interest, politicians and bureaucrats often help their friends and hurt their enemies—but not in a way Christie can capitalize on.
If the voters like him, Chris Christie’s personality will make him seem like a man of the people. If they decide they don’t like him, he will seem like the kind of guy who shuts down traffic to screw over a few people who dared to contradict him.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?