Earlier today, NorthJersey.com broke a story that several top aides to Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) conspired to create massive traffic jams in order to punish a town whose mayor failed to endorse Christie’s re-election bid.
According to e-mails obtained by the publication, several of Christie’s top aides — including his deputy chief of staff and a senior executive with the state’s Port Authority — ordered lane closures on the already overburdened George Washington Bridge to get revenge against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Christie’s deputy chief of staff wrote to another Christie official who oversaw the agency in charge of the bridge. Although Christie initially denied that his staff had anything to do with the traffic delays, the newly released e-mails show that they were directly responsible for the gridlock.
While TrafficGate might appear at first glance to be nothing more than a local crime story, it could have big implications for a future Christie presidential campaign. Here are 8 reasons why the story could cause big trouble for Christie in 2016.
1) It’s the corruption, stupid.
Nobody likes a tyrant. Especially Republican primary voters. Especially in the wake of the Obama administration’s IRS scandal and its selective enforcement of Obamacare. Most Americans still believe in the quaint notion that we are all equal under the law, and that ours is a country of laws, not men. Republican primary voters may expect this kind of abuse of power from Democrats, but they won’t tolerate it within their own ranks.
And to make matters worse, the actions of Christie’s staff didn’t even end up hurting the voters of Christie’s opponent, as his staff had intended. As NBC News reporter Carrie Dann noted on Twitter, Christie beat his Democratic opponent by nearly 12 percentage points among Fort Lee voters.
2) It’s not the crime; it’s the cover-up.
Initial media coverage will rightly focus on the specific acts undertaken by Christie’s top staff — and their effects on Christie’s own constituents — but that’s not where the coverage will end. Reporters will eventually demand to know, Watergate-style, what Christie knew and when he knew it. He is already on record repeatedly denying charges that he or his staff used their power to gum up traffic.
Either Christie was lying, or he was completely in the dark about what his staff was doing under his authority. If it was a one-time screw-up, perhaps he could be absolved, but he was asked multiple times about the emerging scandal, and he denied any involvement — by himself or his staff — each time.
None of the defenses now available to Christie — intentional deceit or intentional ignorance — paint him in a favorable light.
3) People only like bullies when they’re beating up bad guys.
A major part of Christie’s appeal among Republicans is his willingness to stick it to certain liberal special interest groups like public employees’ unions. Conservatives take comfort in knowing that one of their guys knows how to throw a punch. But nobody likes it when their own side starts getting beat up. Christie’s team didn’t just target a potential political opponent for revenge, they targeted his own voters. This incident could very well suggest to a lot of GOP primary voters that Christie’s brashness might have a big downside.
4) Everybody hates traffic.
Traffic is pretty much the Nickelback of everyone’s daily routine. No sane person enjoys it. And the only thing worse than traffic is the idiot who causes it for no good reason.
Traffic is not a partisan or ideological issue, which makes TrafficGate a real problem for a pol who’s done his best to pitch himself as a common-sense, just-get-things-done politician who’s above petty partisan squabbling. Allowing your staff to create massive traffic problems just to get revenge against an irrelevant local lawmaker who most people have never heard of is not a great way to burnish your post-partisan street cred.
5) Even in wartime, you never intentionally target civilians.
Most people understand that politics ain’t beanbag. There’s a certain amount of rough-and-tumble, back-and-forth backbiting that’s expected from the kind of people who choose to spend their lives trying to accumulate as much power as possible. As a result, backroom maneuvering to remove some political privileges enjoyed by one’s opponent probably wouldn’t draw a second glance. But that’s not what Christie’s top aides did. They deliberately chose to target innocent civilians: moms and dads trying to get to work on time, school bus drivers trying to get children to school, first responders trying to take ill people to the hospital.
It doesn’t matter who you are: that type of behavior is inexcusable. Nobody likes the guy who intentionally abuses his power in order to indiscriminately punish people just trying to get through the day.
6) You don’t attack kids or sick people.
Christie’s staff allowed the vengeful lane closures to continue, despite direct knowledge that they were impeding the abilities of school bus drivers to take kids to school and first responders to provide immediate care to those in need:
The Record’s Road Warrior columnist John Chicowski details the days of traffic nightmares that snarled Fort Lee and the surrounding communities. Commuters waited hours, many giving up in frustration. School busses – heading in for the first days of the new year – were stuck for hours. Police struggled to keep vehicles moving. Emergency crews fought against the man-made tide to ferry patients with the clock ticking and the traffic not moving.
"Other than after the 9/11 attacks, I've never seen such a fiasco of delays at the inbound, upper-level part of the bridge," said Ridgefield's Mildred Van Zwaren who teaches in Upper Manhattan. Local officials were in the dark. “Normally, we have good relations with the New Jersey command of the Port Authority police," Fort Lee police chief Keith Bendul said,"but they tell us they don't know what's going on either."
7) You certainly don’t make jokes about the kids you victimized.
And if that weren’t enough, one individual believed to be a Christie confidant actually joked about how miserable the victims of the traffic jam must be:
“Is it wrong that I’m smiling,” the recipient of the text message responded to Wildstein. The person’s identity is not clear because the documents are partially redacted for unknown reasons.
“No,” Wildstein wrote in response. “I feel badly about the kids,” the person replied to Wildstein. “I guess.” “They are the children of Buono voters,” Wildstein wrote, making a reference to Barbara Buono, the Democratic candidate for governor, who lost to Christie in a landslide in November.
8) In politics, past performance is a pretty good indicator of future results.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. If Christie can’t control the antics of a handful of state bureaucrats, how can he possibly prevent the massive federal government leviathan from being used to punish, abuse, and humiliate innocent Americans like those who were forced to sit in traffic for no good reason? In the wake of the current presidential administration’s use of the IRS to terrorize its political enemies, a lot of conservatives and Republicans are just a wee bit sensitive about a politician’s willingness to abuse his power to reward his friends or punish his foes.
To the extent people think of TrafficGate when they think of Christie, his presidential campaign hopes might be hopelessly gridlocked.