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Christie’s Credibility: A Bridge Too Far?

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

What happened with the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee is nowhere near the most atrocious abuse of power we have ever witnessed.  It certainly is not as consequential as widespread NSA wiretapping or Iran-Contra.  And the action itself doesn’t have direct gubernatorial fingerprints like the McGreevey-Cipel or Corzine-Katz affairs.

It is a story that has legs, though, because regardless of the explanation you accept for how it happened, the story undercuts Gov. Christie’s brand image.  That image has been built on two pillars: strong leader and straight shooter.  Bridgegate forced Chris Christie to admit that at least one of those pillars was not what he has claimed and there may be future negative consequences for the other.

In his marathon press conference Thursday, Christie basically admitted that he is not the leader whose moral authority compels people – both Democrats and Republicans – to do the right thing.  The question remains why those in his inner circle felt that they had the license to do these things on behalf of their boss.

And here is where we need to call it like it is.  The governor cannot plausibly express disappointment in the “tone” taken by his advisors, specifically the fact that his campaign manager and former deputy chief of staff, Bill Stepien, called someone an “idiot.”  Christie himself has used this term on more than one occasion, as well as jerk, stupid, numbnuts, and more.  The governor’s disappointment in this aspect of the story does not pass the smell test.

The next point is his shock that this staff would have acted this way.  Bill Stepien is very close to the governor and is well-known as a hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners defender of the Christie image.  If those of us who follow this stuff closely know of Stepien’s reputation, why does Christie apparently think he is a choir boy?  I can only assume that Stepien must be the Eddie Haskell of Christie’s inner circle.

I can’t speak to Bridget Kelly’s behavior in all this because I have never encountered her.  Neither has pretty much anyone in the press corps.  And that calls into question the governor’s attempt to downplay the tight reins he keeps on his staff.  We don’t know Bridget Kelly because we weren’t supposed to have access to her.  That wasn’t part of her job description and Christie’s people do not stray from their job descriptions.

And that raises the question about why Kelly felt she had the authority to give David Wildstein the go ahead to create a “traffic problem” in Fort Lee.  At the very least, it must have fit into her own understanding of what her job responsibilities were.

I am in no way saying that Chris Christie ordered the toll booth closures or even knew about them.  I do not believe he did.  However, it’s hard to give credit to the view that he had no inkling that his people were, at the very least, twisting some arms during the 2013 campaign.

And this is where things get politically dangerous for Gov. Christie in the long term.  He spoke for nearly two hours in his press conference.  Lengthy press conferences are a Christie hallmark but this one was different.  It marked the first time in four years where Christie did not end a press conference in better standing than when he started it.  In fact, he ended it slightly worse.

For one, he felt compelled to say he is not a bully – on more than occasion.  Repeatedly denying a charge is never a good thing (cf. I am not a crook, I am not a witch, etc.).  It is especially true in this case since most of Christie’s constituents actually feel he is a “bully” in some regard.  They just haven’t cared about it because he was only bullying other politicians or the odd detractor – all fair game.  Denying something that most people believe to be true can cause the public to question your credibility.

He also contradicted himself in a number of places during those two hours.  For example, he said he wants to get to the bottom of this incident, but oddly he seems to have no interest in talking to the very people who were at the center of it.  It’s not clear whether everything he said will add up when the media starts parsing his responses.  And the possibility exists that Christie’s version of events may not be fully corroborated by others who could be implicated in the unfolding scandal.

It’s one thing for Christie to lose some of the sheen from his leadership mantel.  That can be rebuilt, especially if this incident blows over after a couple of months.  On the other hand, if at any point Chris Christie undercuts his reputation as a straight shooter, his presidential aspirations are in peril.

One lapse in leadership does not necessarily make you a bad leader.  But one lie will permanently brand you a liar.