The brash qualities that have made Chris Christie one of the fastest-rising stars in politics – and a putative Republican front-runner for the presidency in 2016 – are suddenly looming as the biggest threat to his future prospects.
Is he the pragmatic, bracingly forthright leader seen by his admirers, who include much of the GOP establishment? Or is Christie a petty, unprincipled bully, whose only agenda is his own aggrandizement, as his growing list of adversaries say?
On the one hand, I think hes got a lot to offer. I think hes the most able politician since Bill Clinton, said former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean, a revered Republican who was one of Christies earliest political mentors, but who has since had a falling out with him.
On the other hand, Kean said, you look at these other qualities and ask, Do you really want that in your president?
As a legislative investigation proceeds into the circumstances around a massive traffic snarl on the George Washington Bridge last September – a nightmarish jam that documents show was engineered by those close to the governor in an apparent act of retaliation against a mayor – there is also going to be more scrutiny of Christies management style and personality.
Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a voice of the Republican establishment, suggested that as Christies national profile rises, he had better get used to all of this attention.
The liberal media is chasing this story as if its the Lincoln assassination and writing baloney about him being a bully, Barbour said. I think his effusive personality and enthusiasm is and will be an asset, and as he continues to lead, people will look back at this and shrug.
Indeed, the governors in-your-face, all-politics-is-personal style has been a big part of his appeal, and is one of the reasons he cruised to a second term in 2013.
You always have a shadow side to your strengths, says former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, another outsize personality. One of the dangers he will face is how this will lead to a whole series of questions about whether there are other examples of bullying.
There is no evidence that Christie knew anything about the actions of his subordinates and allies in shutting down access lanes to the bridge for several days in September. At a marathon news conference, he repeatedly insisted he had been blindsided and accused them of betrayal.
Lawmakers will continue their inquiries this week. On Saturday morning, Assemblyman Vincent Prieto, a Democrat and speaker-elect, announced that the chamber will hold a special session Thursday to evaluate how to proceed with regard to subpoenas. Many questions remain unanswered about this threat to public safety and abuse of power, he said in a statement.
New Jersey has a reputation as a state where politics is played rough, but in this case, the punishment was inflicted on tens of thousands of New Jersey commuters. The presumed political target, Democratic Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, was not even aware that Christies office was behind it; Christie himself said the mayor was never on my radar screen. I dont even know this guy.
All of which heightens the stakes for Christie as more details come out. The governors performance at last Thursdays news conference, where he took questions for nearly two hours, was widely praised, as was his quick dismissal of the aides involved. But the email exchanges by Christie associates reveal that they acted with thuggish contempt for anyone who stood in their way.
In December, the New York Times reported that Christie had stripped former Gov. Richard Codey of police security at public events, after Codey failed to act quickly enough on two of the governors nominees. The Times also reported that Christie stripped funding for a Rutgers program after the professor in charge of it voted against the governor on a redistricting commission, and that a GOP state senator who criticized the governor was told not to show up at a Christie event in his own district.
He has been a bully his entire life, and slowly but surely that is starting to become evident to everyone who is watching this from outside New Jersey, Codey said in an interview.
Former Gov. Kean added: If you come at him, hes going to come back at you harder.