What to make of l’affaire Chris Christie? It’s binary - either Governor Christie knew about the punitive George Washington Bridge lane closings or he didn’t. He will either in time be exposed for having lied about this egregious abuse of power or he is guilty of creating a toxic and brutish inner circle. Neither is especially appetizing.
But, this episode could emerge as the best thing that ever happened to the New Jersey Governor. The blowback on this abuse of power may serve as a needed reality check for Christie. His humiliation should make him a better candidate, more intent on controlling himself. More conciliation, less intimidation. Let’s call it lap-band surgery for his persona.
Otherwise, three issues loom large. The first, and most annoying to those on the right, is the out-of-proportion media attention a traffic jam has garnered. I can’t compare the ink spilled on the GW Bridge debacle to the coverage given the IRS scandal – another incident of political bullying -- but certainly members of the media have outdone themselves exploiting one of Christie’s rare missteps.
Don’t get me wrong – engineering a huge and potentially dangerous traffic snarl in Ft.
No, the press is going after Christie because he is the Republican 2016 presidential hopeful with the best shot of beating Hillary Clinton. In some recent polls Christie comes out on top, and scores especially well with independents, suburbanites and older voters – groups important to Hillary. All other GOP contenders lag behind.
Bridge-gate comes at a good time for the Left. After the botched Obamacare roll-out, the NSA revelations, the IRS scandal, the Syria snafu and the Gates’ report card, and midst serious slippage in President Obama’s personal approval ratings, Democrats are anxious. And rightly so. The upcoming congressional elections could well deliver the Senate to the GOP – something almost unthinkable even six months ago.
Chastened Republicans are doing a better job countering the Democrats’ “party of no” narrative--their antipathy to Big Government in the wake of the healthcare fiasco appeals. It’s no longer clear that Hillary can ride Obama’s coattails, and Bill’s coattails, into the Oval Office.
The second issue is that this is not
Candidate Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, can expect a great many ads reminding voters of her indignant response to questions from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee investigating the horrifying murder of one of our ambassadors on her watch. The former First Lady bellowing “What difference at this point does it make?” is not a pretty sight.
The third takeaway from this sorry incident is that Christie’s in-your-face belligerence, which has great appeal to those of us tired of namby-pamby politicians who rarely venture off-script, may come at a cost. As he described himself in his mea culpa news conference, “I don't hide my emotions from people. I am not a focus-group tested, blow-dried candidate or governor.” He’s correct.
Christie comes across as genuine. When he relates how he looked at himself in the bathroom mirror of his hotel suite the night he became governor, and started laughing uncontrollably at the improbability of his election – you believe him. It’s what a lot of us might do. Most politicians would be loathe to admit that they were stunned by their success – but not Christie. That’s why we like him.
He’s not afraid to rip into a teacher whining unreasonably about her pay, or to confront critics questioning his post-Sandy alliance with President Obama. He’s out there – unbridled, unscripted and much more real than the vast majority of politicians.
But, his brashness comes uncomfortably close to bullying. People who have worked with him describe him as confrontational. It remains to be seen whether the out-sized personality that works so well on a smaller stage can project itself nationally. That is why his apologetic news conference was important, and hugely successful. It showed he has grit, in spades, and that he can restrain himself. Few politicians could have withstood that media pummeling without (a la Hillary) exploding in wrath.
It also showed him to be decisive and willing to accept responsibility. After eight years of President Obama blaming everyone and everything for our slow recovery, disastrous foreign policies and botched healthcare overhaul – voters may welcome the very different Chris Christie.
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