Chris Christie’s bridge brouhaha has now entered the national media mainstream, and suddenly everyone is speculating on what Lane Closure-Gate says about his character and whether it undercuts his ’16 presidential prospects. Forgive me for not piling on.
Granted, what happened on the George Washington Bridge last September fully qualifies as tacky political hardball – the kind of stunt that Chicago boss-mayor Richard J. Daley used to pull back in his ’50s heyday; or a page torn from a Sopranos script, with State Assemblyman Ronald Zellman pulling strings for Tony.
A couple of Christie’s highly-placed flunkies were peeved that the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee had declined to endorse the Republican governor’s re-election, so they used their Port Authority clout to shut bridge lanes to the guy’s town, triggering four days of massive traffic jams and serious air pollution. They later claimed that the lanes were closed for a “traffic study” – which doesn’t appear to exist. They’ve since quit their patronage jobs, but the story will be sustained by the various investigations now being launched in Trenton and Washington.
Christie insists that he had no role in the bridge affair; he simply says that “mistakes were made,” the passive wordplay traditionally employed by public servants in the wrong. But clearly he has created a hubristic climate where his Jersey minions felt free to flex punitive political muscle on his behalf, even to the point of using the world’s busiest bridge to beat up a pol who refused to genuflect. And Democrats, thinking that they’ve found a way to bust Christie’s ascendant bubble, have been busy making attack videos, and likening the bridge flap to “Nixon-like dirty tricks.”
But in the end, I doubt this incident will be a drag on Christie’s national brand.
Two years from now, will Republican voters in Iowa and New Hampshire really care a whit about what happened on the bridge ramps to Fort Lee in September 2013? I’d even argue that the lane closures could give him a political boost – because he comes off as a guy who’s willing to kick butts and Get Things Done. That may well appeal to Republicans, who are connoisseurs of power and aura. Intangibles matter in politics. Christie’s intangibles might even trump some of his perceived policy deficiencies, like his occasional support for gun curbs and immigration reform.
There’s also buzz about how bridge-gate is supposedly a window on Christie’s character; supposedly, it calls into question his “temperament,” reinforces his image as a “bully,” and (in the words of Democratic strategist Tad Devine) “goes to the heart of his potential liability” because “temperament is a real issue in presidential politics.”
But here’s a news flash: Successful politicians tend to be people with outsize temperaments. They use all manner of persuasion to bend subordinates to their will, bullying included. And it’s ironic that Democrats are using the bridge incident to paint Christie as a bully who sows a climate of fear – because one of the big knocks against President Obama these days is that nobody in Washington fears him.
And since when is a mercurial temperament a deal-breaker? Bill Clinton had a bad one (“purple rages,” in the words of ex-aide George Stephanopoulos). Even Dwight Eisenhower, who seems so serene in the grainy footage, sometimes got so bonkers that a vein in his forehead would pulsate and his face would take on the coloration of a hot stove burner (according to aide Merlo Pusey, who wrote that Ike’s emotions “are close to the surface,” often triggering “a geyser of hot words”).
All told, as one commentator wrote back in 2008, “a temper is not by itself a disqualifier for high office. For a lot of high achievers, a temper is simply part of the package.” That was me, defending Senator John McCain (a notoriously hot-tempered bully), when his Republican rivals were questioning his character.
So it’s doubtful that the Democrats have found a way to take Christie down…unless there’s a smoking-gun audio of Christie phoning his Port Authority guys and saying something like this: “Because I’m such a power-mad tyrant who doesn’t deserve to be president of the United States, I am officially ordering you to take a bat to that Fort Lee mayor and really fug him up.”
Otherwise, for Christie’s political foes, the incident is probably a bridge to nowhere.
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