Is Christie toast?
Let’s assume that there are no more shoes to drop, that is, that we don’t discover that Christie was blind copied on the smoking-howitzer emails, or that he otherwise knew about or approved of choking the streets of Fort Lee. (If that happens, you can forgetabouthim in any regional dialect.)
But even if the scandal stops with his deputy chief of staff, this scandal may still prove fatal to Christie’s prospects. Political scandals are not created equal. Americans unfortunately tend to discount bureaucratic scandals, such as IRS harassment of tea-party groups or arbitrary EPA targeting of businesses and property owners. Likewise Americans tend to be forgiving of foreign-policy scandals, from the Bay of Pigs through Iran-contra and Mogadishu (and, sadly, probably Benghazi, too). Americans are even forgiving up to a point about personal scandals, though Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer seem to have found the limits of Clinton-era forgiveness. Bureaucratic government is too opaque things overseas “just go wrong”; and personal sins are, well, personal.
Gridlockgate — has anyone called it that yet? — is at the top of the scandal scale. It sounds like the kind of thing Nixon’s more reckless operatives might have tried, but at least they confined their mischief to their political enemies. Christie’s political hatchet-wielders directed their mischief in a manner that disrupted the lives of thousands of ordinary citizens entirely removed from and blameless in the partisan conflicts of the state’s political class.
To be sure, helping one’s friends and harming one’s enemies — and the constituents and interests aligned with them — is an ordinary feature of budgetary and administrative government today. But these kind of ordinary acts of partisan warfare can at least be cloaked in a superficial rationale, whereas deliberately causing traffic misery is simply petty. It’s the kind of thing ordinary citizens rightly resent more than a corrupt garbage-hauling contract.
Christie helped himself with his press conference, putting on a sincere performance that matched Bill Clinton’s best escapes from his near-death scandals in the 1990s. So he may yet stay alive. He might consider going on the offensive, and promising, for example, never to close national monuments during budget stalemates, excuse rogue bureaucrats in the IRS, or provide phony alibis for negligent agents of his national-security team when an embassy comes under fire.
These scandals are more consequential to American government than abusing the placement of traffic cones for a few days, and it would be good if Republicans had a candidate in 2016 able to make the comprehensive case about the systematic corruption at the heart of government today. But it is harder for Christie to make this case now, having handed his enemies a cheap retort.
— Steven F. Hayward is the visiting scholar in conservative thought and policy at the University of Colorado at Boulder.