Lots of politicians get blamed for gridlock, but few can really grab it with both mitts and own it the way Gov. Chris Christie now can. One of his top aides gave the go-ahead to shut down traffic into Fort Lee, N.J., because the town’s Democratic mayor wouldn’t endorse Christie’s re-election bid. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” wrote Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff in the governor’s office.* Then, when the traffic was causing the predictable problems, Christie’s aides appeared to delight in the fact that the ones being inconvenienced were likely to vote for Christie’s opponent.
The problems for Christie and his presidential ambitions are obvious. The scandal is cinematic, amusing, and repeatable, which means it won’t go away. Any of Christie’s opponents in 2016 can refer to it at any time. New reporters will now be assigned to the Christie dirt-digging beat. It will be a stone in Christie’s shoe as he endures the already irritating process of lugging himself across the country to campaign for the nomination.
The story also confirms the existing stereotype that Christie is a bully from a state known for playing rough and being ethically loose. It raises questions about just what kind of operation Christie is running and whether he can be trusted. Christie has dismissed questions about the bridge issue and said—at least before the latest revelations—that no one in his office knew about it. Also, this would appear to close off Christie’s lane to the high road (sorry). How can he say things like this from now on? “We watch a Congress at war with itself because they are unwilling to leave campaign-style politics at the Capitol’s door.”
This is a political problem for Christie, but more importantly, it’s a leadership test. Since the governor arrived on the national stage, he has given various ad hoc seminars on leadership and the qualities required for greatness. He talks a great deal about the topic and offers himself as an expert. Before he became partners with Barack Obama in responding to Hurricane Sandy, he gave a very astringent critique of the president’s shortcomings. Recently Christie advised the president to apologize for his promise that if people wanted to keep their insurance they would be allowed to. “When you make a mistake, you should own up to it and apologize for it,” he said.
Will Christie do that here? Christie now faces problems that echo ones this president has faced, most recently in the rollout of the Affordable Care Act: Does he apologize, and how fully? Does he take responsibility for the actions of his aides? Does he admit mistakes? Does he fire someone? Does he increase his famous bluster or does he step back from it? Christie is very good at giving advice on these matters. Now he can show rather than tell.
As a political matter, if Christie handles the fallout with skill, you could see voters finding their way to a rationalization. Sure, he is a little messy, but that’s why he gets results! The truth of leadership is that you want a president who can be a bit of a bully. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates says in his new memoir, President Obama and President Bush both had problems with Congress because neither was liked or feared. But that obviously only goes so far. We also don’t want presidents who abuse their power. The Fort Lee emails are a classic case of that. Christie was already a lock to win his 2013 re-election race and therefore didn’t really need the mayoral endorsement. If a top aide to the governor can waste public money in an act of petty vindictiveness, imagine what might happen with real power—power of the kind we have all been debating in the wake of disclosures about the NSA’s ability to monitor American citizens. On the other hand, if Christie hires staffers who were dumb enough to say this kind of thing on email, perhaps general competence is the bigger worry.
*Correction, Jan. 8, 2014: This post originally misstated that Bridget Anne Kelly wrote, “Time for some traffic in Fort Lee.” She wrote, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” (Return.)