The two key questions are obvious. What did New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie know, and when did he know it?
When I first heard about the George Washington Bridge scandal, I assumed that the governor knew about the phony “traffic study” and the plan to stick it to Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich. Like almost every political reporter and analyst in Washington, D.C., I’m incredibly cynical, making it easy for me to believe the worst about any politician.
We still don’t know whether Christie told the entire truth at his news conference last week or whether the many investigations that are now developing — about the bridge scandal but also about other decisions made by the governor during his time in office — will show poor judgment or even malfeasance.
But given the governor’s immediate reaction to the personal crisis that has engulfed him, it isn’t too soon to wonder when the accusations and media frenzy crossed the line from inquiry and investigation to political lynching.
I said I initially assumed that Christie had some knowledge of the plan to tie up traffic in Fort Lee that has caused so much outrage. But after the governor’s news conference, in which he was so definitive in his denials — and so dismissive of the charges when they aired initially, even mocking them by saying that he was the person who put the cones out on the road — I changed my mind.
But the governor's performance was persuasive. There was no hemming and hawing, no uncomfortable pauses, no sense that he was parsing his words to make sure that he was answering a question without actually answering it.
What I haven’t yet heard from those covering the controversy is much talk about how politically motivated the investigations are and how inflammatory the coverage has been.
Let’s be clear. The bridge “traffic study” was an outrageous political dirty trick, and if the governor knew about it and authorized it, he will (and should) pay a huge price. But that’s only a part of the reason for the outrage emanating from Democratic politicians and the Democratic Party’s primary messaging vehicle, otherwise known as MSNBC.
New Jersey and national Democrats are jumping on the story and pursuing other inquiries that they hope will uncover information embarrassing to Christie in the hope of destroying his 2016 candidacy for president. They rightly see him as a threat — probably the strongest general-election candidate the GOP could nominate — so they are trying to destroy him politically.
Both the New Jersey Assembly and Senate have launched investigations of the bridge incident and the governor. Longtime Democratic politician Loretta Weinberg, the majority leader of the state Senate, said the controversy now “involves the abuse of power, risks to public safety, harm to interstate commerce and a possible cover-up.”
A New York Daily News headline roared, “New Jersey pol leading Bridgegate probe says Christie impeachment ‘a possibility’ if governor lied,” a reference to Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who also happens to be a former chairman of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.
And according to the Daily News, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., a 25-year member of Congress, “asked the fed” to open an investigation about “allegations [Christie] misused Hurricane Sandy relief funds.”
Payback is fair in politics, of course, and Republicans have spent months beating up former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton over Benghazi, Libya, to weaken her for 2016, so what Christie is experiencing isn’t exactly new. But let’s call both issues what they are, at least in part — political games.
Unlike most political reporters and analysts, I never bought into the notion that Christie was the favorite for the Republican nomination. (Here's what I wrote about that almost a year ago in this space.)
Polls show him “leading” the race, but the race has not really started. Voters across the country don’t know much about the potential hopefuls, not one of whom has yet announced. So the polls measure nothing but name identification and the nature of the early coverage of potential hopefuls.
I’ve been skeptical that Christie will sell to enough GOP caucus attendees and primary voters around the country to win his party’s nomination, though I certainly haven’t said that he can’t win. The more Democrats make their attacks on him resemble a partisan witch-hunt, the better Christie’s chances become — as long as his opponents don’t find a smoking gun.
The governor is a controversial figure who has stepped on toes over the years, so it is no wonder some are gleeful about his current situation and others are looking to pay him back. But the smell now emanating from the Garden State isn’t merely the pure sweetness of good government. It also includes a pungent odor of partisan politics and pettiness coming from Christie’s detractors.
And someone needs to say that at the same time we are all following the criticism of the governor and the details about the mess on the George Washington Bridge.