Would Chris Christie’s administration block traffic lanes from Fort Lee, NJ, onto the George Washington Bridge to retaliate against its Democratic mayor for endorsing Christie’s opponent? Back in December, I dubbed these seemingly far-fetched allegations a conspiracy theory—but as I said at the time, sometimes conspiracy theories are true! Pundits and critics like MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow were ahead of the facts, but today’s revelation—reported most compellingly in the Bergen County Record and The Wall Street Journal—of a series of emails between top Christie aides and Port Authority officials cartoonishly plotting to create “traffic problems in Fort Lee” will turn this apparent abuse of power into a major scandal.
In my research on presidential scandal, I describe scandals as a “co-production” of the media and the opposition party. In this case, the Democrats are highly motivated to take down Christie, who is widely seen as the GOP’s most formidable 2016 nominee, and can use the investigative powers of state lawmakers in New Jersey to drive the scandal forward with new disclosures. (The key emails were obtained via subpoena by a legislative committee.) Democrats’ incentives align closely with those of the political media, which faces a slow post-holidays news cycle and would much prefer a juicy 2016 story to the years-old stalemate between President Obama and congressional Republicans.
Another important factor is the structure of the New York City media market, which is more competitive than any other major metropolitan area. Dailies and magazines in the region are likely to compete intensely to break news as the investigation moves forward. (The New York Times’s relative slowness on today’s news was a subject of conversation among media-watchers on Twitter.)
Finally, the story seems to vindicate previous criticisms of Christie. The biggest political scandals often reinforce a pre-existing narrative: Bill Clinton and Gary Hart were womanizers, Joe Biden is a blowhard, etc. In this case, the bridge controversy plays perfectly into the stereotype of corrupt and vindictive New Jersey politicians.
The most important consequence of this story is, of course, the alleged abuse of power by government officials. However, the political consequences for Christie are getting even more attention. What can we say at this point? On the one hand, it’s important not to overhype the significance of events like this to ordinary voters, very few of whom are paying close attention to the jockeying among potential 2016 candidates. The problem for Christie is that his principal asset in a Republican primary is an aura of electability. That aura may now start to dissipate along with his previously impressive favorable/unfavorable ratings, which were already looking more like those of a conventional politician. Moreover, widespread coverage of the bridge controversy could renew fears among elites about other potential skeletons in his closet and embolden GOP rivals and operatives who oppose his candidacy. Research by political scientists suggests that those party elites play a critical role in choosing the party’s nominee. If Christie is not seen as the most electable candidate, he’s unlikely to get much traction given his previous ideological heterodoxies.
It’s still far too early for anyone to decide one way or the other on backing Christie, and other candidates have survived far worse scandals on the way to a nomination. But in addition to investigating what happened on the George Washington Bridge, enterprising political journalists should report on how it is affecting Christie’s standing with Republican donors, activists, and elected officials. The media should also keep an eye out for more dirt. If they’re smart, Christie’s people may dump other damaging information now and try to get those stories out before the 2016 campaigning starts in earnest.
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