By Columnist Susan Estrich
My wishfully thinking Democratic friends are hoping that Bridgegate will sink the presidential ambitions of “frontrunner” Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor whose independent streak and straight-talking authenticity have earned him the mostly meaningless crown three years out.
In case you’ve been under a rock, Bridgegate is the mean bit of New Jersey politics in which the Democratic mayor of the town of Fort Lee was “punished” for not endorsing the Republican governor for re-election with crippling traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge on the first day of school. The governor had denied any political motivation or any involvement at all in the closures. Turns out one of his top aides emailed one of his top allies to teach the mayor a lesson. Scandal No. 1 of campaign 2016.
Presidential politics looks easy until you try it.
Better now than in 2016.
Bridgegate is the sort of scandal that could kill you if it were timed right. Christie is a candidate whose strengths and weaknesses are opposite sides of a fine line. People like the fact that he is a down-to-earth tough guy who takes charge, which is just a short jump away from being a Jersey boss who has to control – and win – everything. Authentic is good. So Christie has a temper. That makes him real. Until it makes him mean.
Luckily for Christie, it’s 2014, and so far, he’s done everything right, according to the playbook for handling political scandals. He’s apologized and fired the supposedly responsible party; he’ll cooperate with the investigation; he is suitably shocked and chagrined. It might all just go away as long as there are no emails or text messages that suggest he knew what he claims he didn’t know (in which case, his denial is a dangerous tack and not a smart one).
But the press will be looking for “more” like this. Expect to read more about that traffic stop during which he supposedly threw his weight around when he was a U.S. Attorney. It didn’t work when his Democratic opponent Jon Corzine used it in an anti-Christie ad, but it surely will be part of the developing narrative of Christie as the arrogant and power-abusing New Jersey boss. Was he a bully in junior high? Trust me, we’ll find out.
To be sure, Christie is no Herman Cain. Not as funny. Also, he’s run twice in a big state. But the second time was a cakewalk, and the first time, his opponent was in an uphill fight, to say the least. Christie has never had a really tough race, and he’s certainly never felt the hot lights of presidential scrutiny, much less the rigors of 24/7 coverage of your every move and mistake in an era in which anyone over 5 years old knows how to make a video. Politics has never been harder. There are no freebies anymore.
So, for those of us watching, it should be interesting, if not fun. Christie is a smart guy, and presumably, so are those around him. But almost no one is as smart as they should be when it comes to email and texting.
I sometimes do a presentation for my clients where I hold up an ancient piece of technology – a telephone – and commend its use. People say things in emails and texts that they would say around a water cooler, but there are no cameras and recorders at the water cooler. Email is forever. It has the potential to do to candidates what it has done to any number of white-collar defendants. The old days when you could deny a true story and it might go away are over.
So Christie’s first scandal has a message and a warning: The lights are on. Be careful what you write – or wrote.