Chris Christie’s presidential dreams died on Friday.
Now that two former senior aides have been indicted in Bridgegate (nine counts apiece) and a third has pled guilty (to fraud and to “conspiracy against the civil rights” of kids and motorists), the only remaining debate is whether it’s more accurate to describe Christie as toast or as a headless chicken.
I vote for the headless chicken, because that kind of bird can go through the motions of running around for a while before toppling over. Hence, Christie’s beleaguered spinners are still insisting that he’s a viable GOP hopeful, that he’s heading for New Hampshire next weekend, that he’ll likely announce a bid this spring, that he’s in it to win it.
Yeah, whatever. But Republican donors and voters aren’t going to boost a guy who’s under a cloud. And, as evidenced by what the U.S. attorney shared on Friday, that cloud is darker than ever. Bridgegate was no garden-variety scandal, the kind where backroom insiders trade money for favors. Bridgegate was a petty act of political retribution – in the feds’ words, “a deliberate and illegal scheme” – that used thousands of innocent citizens as pawns.
And not just any citizens. We’re talking about kids. Kids on buses, bound for their first day of school. As U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said Friday, these kids were “callously victimized,” all because the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee was refusing to endorse Christie’s ’13 re-election bid.
It doesn’t mean squat that Christie didn’t personally know about the GW Bridge lane closures (as he reminded us Friday, a la Richard Nixon denying personal knowledge of the Watergate break-in). His indicted senior aides acted as they did, using kids to punish the mayor, because that’s how the game was played in his thugocracy.
As prominent Republican strategist Alex Castellanos said after the indictments were handed down, “Now we’ve learned that his political style is contagious. He infected his own government with it.” Note, also, that Castellanos was willing to say this on the record. A politician is truly a headless chicken when notables in his own party are comfortable going public with no fear of blowback.
No wonder: Christie has long been bleeding out, thanks to the long federal probe. According to a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll in March, 57 percent of Republican primary voters said they couldn’t envision supporting him – the highest negatives of all possible aspirants except Donald Trump. And a recent poll sponsored by the nonpartisan Real Clear Politics put Christie in seventh place, deep down in clown territory.
And those polls were conducted before the release of Friday’s seamy indictment details. Based on the email trail, the texts and letters, and the testimony of guilty-pleading David Wildstein, he and his alleged co-conspirators, the indicted Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, conceived the idea of squeezing traffic access to Fort Lee as far back as 2011- two years before they actually did it. Baroni is quoted in the indictment as saying that the traffic squeeze was “important to Trenton.”
Then, to maximize the havoc, they deliberately chose the first day of school. Then, according to the indictments, “the conspirators concocted and promoted a sham story that reducing the number of lanes and tollbooths…was for a traffic study.”
The first day of school. Taxpaying parents put their kids on buses, where the kids were trapped in traffic for hours. Any Republican voter who has kids will think about that one – assuming that Christie still gives it a try, despite the darkening cloud.
And here’s the cloud: If Baroni and Kelly continue to claim innocence (they were arraigned this morning), they’ll be put on trial in federal criminal court – as early as July, in the heat of the Iowa/New Hampshire primary season. Any prospective Republican donor who’s currently tempted to write a check to Christie is already checking the calendar. And Baroni and Kelly can avoid trial only if they agree to provide new info. And that info, if allegedly criminal, could spark more indictments.
So this sordid show isn’t over. The headless chicken can keep going through the motions, but, as the U.S attorney said Friday, “It’s like the end of Downton Abbey. You’ve got to wait for the next season.”
Meanwhile, the Republican no-hope roster continues to expand:
Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, plus (hopefully) Rick Perry and Rick Santorum, plus (possibly) John Kasich, Bobby Jindal, and Lindsey Graham, joining the supposedly plausible Scott Walker and Marco Rubio, topped by money-vacuum Jeb Bush…there may not be enough room on stage. They may need to stack the contestants vertically, like on Hollywood Squares. That first GOP debate in August can’t come soon enough.