Taking a Toll on Chris Christie

Article excerpt

Byline: Pema Levy

Fighting for his political life on Thursday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie offered up a line he may ultimately regret: "I am not a bully."

It immediately evoked Richard Nixon's infamous flat denial of his criminality during the Watergate scandal. "I am not a crook," Nixon said. The line is memorable because, it turned out, he was a crook.

Whether or not Christie is ultimately found to be involved in the scandal, there is little doubt that Christie is a bully.

Emails and text messages revealed that Christie's top aides and appointees created days of interminable traffic jams in Fort Lee, N.J., as political retribution against Mark Sokolich, the town's Democratic mayor, who had failed to back Christie's re-election. Watergate it's not. But the Nixon comparisons are unavoidable.

"I recalled how similar the governor's conduct during the re-election campaign was to that of President Nixon during his victorious re-election campaign in 1972," former Republican state Assemblyman Richard Merkt, a former Christie ally turned primary rival in 2009, told New York magazine.

Merkt pointed out that Christie, like Nixon, was ahead in the polls by about 30 points when his office asked the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to shut down two access lanes onto the George Washington Bridge. "[Nixon] had no need to engage in an abuse of power to win re-election, and, in fact, he won by a landslide. But Nixon just couldn't help himself; he did it anyway; he eventually got caught, and it cost him his office and political career," he said.

Until now, Christie was considered a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Setting aside the legal landslide about to come down on Christie's administration, including an urgent investigation by the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, the question is whether he is tarred with the bully image forever and whether it will sink him if he persists in his run for the White House.

Christie's famously abrasive manner has always been a double-edged sword for the governor. At its best it gives him a no-nonsense, people-first persona; at its worst, it is stereotypical New Jersey thuggery.

The first may appeal to some hard-nosed New Jersey Republican primary voters - especially if used to attack Democrats. But the second would alienate early primary voters in Iowa or South Carolina who would be skeptical about electing a New Jersey bully president. To be a strong executive is a necessary quality in a president; to be a bully is a deal breaker.

"An early primary opponent can really use this in a pejorative way that facilitates rural voters buying into this stereotype about New Jersey in particular and about New Jersey politicians, and that does not help the governor," said Brigid Harrison, a professor of politics and law at Montclair State University and a politics expert. "That kind of distances him from the voters whose support he will need."

Despite Christie's protestations, the governor has a reputation for political retribution, and Bridgegate lets the rest of the country know the side of Christie that political operatives in Trenton know too well. Why else would Democrats immediately jump to the conclusion that a city's traffic problems were a political revenge plot, as text messages released Wednesday indicate?

"Someone needs to tell me that the recent traffic debacle was not punitive in nature," Sokolich said in a September text to Bill Baroni, one of two Christie allies at the Port Authority who has since resigned. "The last four reporters who contacted me suggest that the people they are speaking with absolutely believe it to be punishment."

"People make presumptions based on the experiences that they have," Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida, and the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee explained on MSNBC Wednesday night. …