Why Bridgegate Is So Dangerous to Chris Christie's Reputation

The governor's popularity rests on his credibility and his competence. It's hard to see how he comes out of this without serious damage to one or the other.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Chris Christie's case—his appeal as both a governor and a potential presidential candidate—is based on two things: credibility and competence.

His credibility stems from his bluntness and willingness to tell it like it is, even, he insists, if that means pissing people off. (The genius is that the people he's pissing off are often easy punching bags—teacher's unions aren't exactly popular with most voters.) His competence is all about a willingness to get his hands dirty, cut through nonsense, and do what needs to be done to help the state of New Jersey, even if that means embracing Barack Obama. There's ample evidence that voters are more attracted to his tone than his policies: New Jersey voters reelected him by a landslide in November even though they overwhelmingly oppose him on issues from gay marriage to the minimum wage.

What makes the Bridgegate scandal, now in Day 2 of its national phase, so dangerous is that it's hard to imagine how Christie gets out without serious damage to either his credibility or his competence—and possibly both. For nearly two hours at a marathon press conference Thursday, Christie apologized, fumed, scowled, cracked wise, and soul-searched, but his main message was simple: I knew absolutely nothing about any plan to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge; I told my staff to tell me if they knew anything about it; my deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, lied, so I fired her. (He also told Bill Stepien, his former campaign manager, to withdraw a bid for state Republican Party chair.)

"It's been written a lot over the last couple of days about what a tight-knit staff I have and how closely everyone works together, and that is true," Christie said. "And ever since the time I was U.S. attorney, I've engendered the sense and feeling among the people closest to me that we're a family .... I am heartbroken that someone who I permitted to be in that circle of trust for the last five years betrayed my trust."

If Christie is telling the truth—it's hard to imagine he'd lie brazenly and publicly with a U.S. attorney and the state legislature breathing down his neck—he keeps his credibility. But what about his competence? How is it possible that one of his closest aides was running a rogue political vendetta out of his office, without the knowledge of the governor or any of his other top aides? That raises serious questions about Christie's reputation as an effective, hands-on manager. How would such an executive function atop the federal government if he can't even handle Trenton?

This explanation also raises questions about Christie's temperament. One reporter asked him directly if he was a bully. The governor replied, in part:

I don't hide my emotions from people. I am not a focus-group-tested, blow- dried candidate or governor. Now, that has always made some people, as you know, uneasy. Some people like that style, some people don't. And I've always—I think you asked me the question day after the election, are you willing to change your style in order to appeal to a broader audience? And I think I said no because I am who I am. But I am not a bully.

You can have some fun parsing that: When does someone cross over from making many people uneasy to being a bully? In any case, it's hard to believe a staffer would independently hatch and execute a plan to close bridge lanes to punish the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie unless he's set a tone for political revenge (to say nothing of the litany of other allegations of revenge levied against Christie).

There was plenty more to gnaw on from the press conference. Bizarrely, Christie clung to the claim that the lane closures could have been part of a traffic study—either a study that grew out of a political vendetta, or a study that turned into a vendetta—despite strong evidence that there was no such study.

Asked about a 91-year-old woman who died after her ambulance was delayed in bridge traffic, Christie tried to have it both ways: "Now, I've also seen conflicting reports about what the cause of death was and whatever, but it doesn't matter." At one point, a reporter asked him about David Wildstein, a Christie appointee to the Port Authority whom the governor has known since high school and who has already resigned over the closures. Christie downplayed any relationship in hilariously dismissive fashion: "We didn't travel in the same circles in high school. You know, I was the class president and athlete. I don't know what David was doing during that period of time."

Both those statements are classic Christie: funny, discursive, self-aggrandizing, pugilistic. But the press conference helped to show the limits of that act. After two hours explanations, the question for New Jerseyans—and potentially for voters nationwide come 2016—remains whether Christie is disingenuous or simply oblivious. Neither makes him look very appealing.