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December 14, 2013 10:53 AM Will a New Jersey traffic congestion scandal doom Chris Christie’s presidential ambitions?

By Kathleen Geier

I’ve been watching with fascination a situation unfolding in my ancestral homeland of New Jersey. Governor Chris Christie has found himself embroiled in a growing controversy involving traffic congestion on the George Washington Bridge.

Only in New Jersey, perhaps, could a story centering on traffic congestion become a source of sexy intrigue and scandal! But if you’ve ever commuted between Jersey and NYC, you’d realize immediately that this is serious stuff. The one thing New Jerseyans of all political stripes can agree on is that the closest simulacrum to hell on earth may well be to be stuck in backed up traffic on one of Jersey’s bridges or tunnels during rush hour.

Today’s New York Times has a story about the scandal that fills in some of the details. For four days back in September, local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee, New Jersey were inexplicably closed. The Times reports that the lane closings “caused emergency vehicles to be delayed, commutes to stretch to four hours and children to be late to the first day of school. It cost the agency toll revenue and overtime pay.”

It seems that the lane closings were ordered as a form of political payback, because the (Democratic) mayor of Fort Lee refused to endorse Christie’s re-election for governor. While it’s still not clear what exactly happened, investigations are being conducted in the state legislature and the Port Authority, and two of Christie’s closest aides have resigned. Christie made things worse for himself by calling New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to bitch him out about how the Port Authority was handling the investigation. According to one report, Christie complained that the Port Authority was “pushing too hard to uncover the truth.”

Christie’s response to all this? He told the Times, “a mistake got made.”

To properly appreciate that comment, you have to imagine it being said in the full-on North Jersey cadences of Tony Soprano.

It’s hard to say whether this scandal snowball into anything that could truly threaten Christie’s governorship — or his presidential aspirations. Thus far, other than the unfortunate phone call to Cuomo, Christie is seems to be handling the situation relatively well. First of, keeping the whole thing — which occurred in September — buried until after the election? Good job! Also, he allowed the aides involved to resign with dispatch — there were no Reagan-like self-destructive attempts to retain loyal but politically inconvenient appointees.

And for his interview with the Times, he turned on the charm — patiently answering questions without losing his temper. That latter point is important, given Christie’s reputation as a bully — a reputation which this scandal tends to bolster. Yet Christie the politician does have warmth and charm, something that liberal blog readers, who are most familiar with videos showing his angry, menacing side, may not realize.

Christie’s George Washington Bridge controversy may well blow over. But in spite of his popularity, I wouldn’t be shocked if this or some other scandal ends up destroying his presidential ambitions — if not vaporizing his political career. New Jersey politics has a way of doing that to once-prominent political leaders. Robert Torricelli was well on his way to becoming one of the most powerful members of the U.S. senate when his political career went up in smoke as the result of a campaign finance scandal. And how can we forget Governor Jim “I am a gay American” McGreevey? Even Jon Corzine, the Goldman Sachs exec turned senator and later governor, whom New Jersey voters elected because they thought he was so filthy rich he was corruption-proof? Well, as it turned out, scandal-proof he was not (though the MF Global affair didn’t break until after he left office).

But barring scandal, I think Christie remains the odds-on favorite to become the G.O.P. nominee for president in 2016. The money boys clearly want him, and in the end, they usually have their way on the most important disputes within the party. Whatever problems Christie may have with the base will likely be smoothed over. After eight years of the hated Kenyan Muslim socialist, they’ll want the White House back so badly they’ll play ball — albeit perhaps not without some empty political theater first. (The wingnuts specialize in that form of kabuki. Though it’s disappeared down the memory hole, many conservatives were so unhappy with President Reagan that in 1984 they threatened to primary him).

Christie’s also got a built-in, compelling-sounding campaign theme: “I rebuilt the Jersey shore from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy, and I can do the same for the American economy.” (Never mind that his response to Hurricane Sandy is not all it’s cracked up to be). Ultimately, I think Christie’s greatest political strength is that many people who would otherwise never dream of voting Republican might consider voting for Chris Christie. To many voters, he’s not culturally alien in the manner of Tea Partiers like Rand Paul or Christian right types like Mike Huckabee.

I also think Christie has far more formidable political skills than any of his competitors in the GOP. Whether he can become president will largely depend on how lousy the economy continues to be in 2016.

But here’s what I mean by “more skilled”: Christie is a red party governor of a blue state, and governed during a time when the economy was a mess and there were massive state budget cutbacks. In most cases, that would be a recipe for a very unpopular, one-term governor. Practically everyone in Illinois hates Pat Quinn, a Democratic governor of a Democratic state, who’s governed during a similar fiscal scenario.

So how the heck does Christie manage to be re-elected in a landslide? Especially after he turned down free money from the feds for a job-creating project to build a new tunnel in the Hudson River — at the height of the recession, yet? Again, as we’ve discussed, Jersey commuters do not enjoy sitting in traffic.

Also, getting back to my point about Christie vs. most of his likely GOP competitors — being governor is a much, much harder job than being senator. Senators don’t have to do very much but flounce around and make speeches. One of the few things Sarah Palin wasn’t completely wrong about was her argument that Barack Obama’s four years in the U.S. Senate didn’t make him especially well-qualified to be president.

But governors perform many important, and difficult, executive functions, including overseeing budgets and important government agencies, making appointments, wheeling and dealing with the state legislature, and more. And when a state’s economy or government services go sour, the governor takes the blame. In general, the same cannot be said for U.S. senators when things go wrong on the national level.

I’ll put it this way: last year, Illinois’s Republican senator, Mark Kirk, had a stroke and couldn’t fulfill his duties as a senator for over a year. Barely anyone noticed.

If he’d been the governor, people would have noticed.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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