By Patrick Murray | February 2nd, 2014 - 1:18pm
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Former NY/NJ Port Authority exec David Wildstein claims to know of “evidence” that contradicts Chris Christie’s statements about when he knew of Bridgegate.  If true, the governor’s political career is all but over. If false, the governor’s political ambitions have still suffered a serious, and potentially permanent, setback.  It all hinges on his effectiveness as RGA chair. 

In a letter to the Port Authority, Wildstein’s lawyer states that “evidence exists …. tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the Governor stated publicly in a two-hour press conference [January 9].”

A Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press Poll conducted in the days after that press conference found that most New Jerseyans did not believe that the governor was being completely honest about when he found out about the George Washington Bridge toll lane closures. In other words, they were willing to cut him some slack if he actually found out about his staff’s involvement earlier than he has told us. However, they did not believe he was involved in the closure decision itself.

In its initial reaction to the latest charges, the Christie administration parsed the text of the letter and their own response very carefully.  Rather than refer to the governor’s January 9th statements they went back to an earlier press conference, saying that “[a]s the governor said in a December 13th press conference, he only first learned lanes were closed when it was reported by the press.”

In fact, the first press report on the lane closures was in a traffic column in The Record published on September 13 – the last day of the lane closures.  Thus the governor can claim that he never said he did not know about the incident at all “during the period when the lanes were closed.”  In so doing, Christie’s camp asserts that “Mr. Wildstein's lawyer confirms what the governor has said all along - he had absolutely no prior knowledge.”

The governor has proven to be a very accomplished word parser in extracting himself from apparent contradictions.  However, this one is skating very close to the Bill Clinton “it depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” territory.  It’s not clear how much more parsing the public will accept.

Are the charges true?  We really don’t know.  It’s clear that Wildstein has ulterior motives, the most obvious of which is he needs to be able to pay for his defense.  There is an oblique and intriguing reference to Port Authority Commissioner David Samson being copied on prior correspondence but not later correspondence after Samson was implicated in the potential misuse of Sandy recovery funds.   Is there an implicit threat to the Port Authority in this letter as well?

While Wildstein enjoyed having a position of power in the Christie administration he was never the Christie loyalist that some in the media have made him out to be.  He is a person who relishes being at the center of the political action, which is what makes him so dangerous to Christie.

The Christie circle realizes that. Otherwise the administration would not have sent out a scathing email on Friday eviscerating David Wildstein’s veracity. The fact that this email came from one of the administration’s press officers, and not from the campaign or an outside group, is an indication that the Christie camp is more than a little scared.  As well they should be, because true or not, the damage has been done.

Let’s assume that none of the allegations in the letter are true; that no such “evidence” that Christie lied about what he knew ever surfaces. If this investigation peters out in the next few months, Chris Christie has more than enough time to rebuild his reputation before the 2016 campaign gets underway in earnest. 

Christie may even garner some sympathy from conservative Republicans nationwide who are skeptical of his ideology.  Christie can paint this whole episode as a political witch-hunt designed to undermine the GOP’s best hope of winning the White House.  In the long term, Christie can regain his reputation.  But he will suffer short-term hits that will undercut his strategy for 2016.

First is the Christie persona that he can get things done, even with a legislature controlled by the opposite party.  Even before the Bridgegate scandal hit, there was no expectation that Christie’s second term agenda would be particularly ambitious.  He needed to propose a big idea or two – that didn’t need to go anywhere – and focus on balancing a budget without any tax increases.

He still had some ability to provide some direct benefits to legislative leaders and their allies in the forms of funneling grant money their way, greenlighting charter schools in favored areas, etc.  This would have been enough for him to still hold a strong hand in the budgeting process this year.

Months ago, the Democratic National Committee began to run web ads on attacking Christie on the lane closures before there was any direct link to his administration.  Powerful Democratic boss George Norcross basically told them to lay off Christie.

That was then.  Last week, before the Wildstein attorney letter was published, the state Democratic chair issued a scathing letter encouraging his fellow Democrats to hold Christie’s feet to the fire on this.  That letter wouldn’t have been issued without the tacit approval of all factions of the party, including the Norcross wing.

Why?  The political risks to Democrats own futures now outweigh any of the transactional benefits they may have got from working with Christie.  They can’t afford to be seen as having Christie’s back – particularly with a contested Democratic primary for governor looming in the near future.   And that is going to make life tough for Christie the leader.

The other problem for Chris Christie is how these new revelations impact his effectiveness as chair of the Republican Governor’s Association.  There are more than 30 contested gubernatorial contests this year, including key states such as Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.  Gov. Christie was going to be spending a lot of time in these states campaigning with and – most importantly – raising money for the GOP candidates in these races.

There is no question that Christie would have been the biggest fundraising draw any of the candidates will have this year.  And that would mean a lot when it comes time to call in chits for support in 2016 primaries and caucuses.

This was all part of the Christie team’s grand plan to squeeze out all other “establishment” contenders for the GOP presidential nomination.  It would leave him alone among a gaggle of conservative true-believers who would split voter support.  This would provide Christie the opening to galvanize moderate support and navigate through the crucial early contests until he became the inevitable nominee.

The lynchpin in all this was earning the early endorsements of party leaders, both nationally and in the early battleground states.  Christie’s RGA chairmanship would be the vehicle to make this happen.

As of this now, Republican leaders have not publicly abandoned him.  But these latest charges have made them nervous.  The danger is whether GOP candidates begin to feel that the political risk of being associated with Christie outweighs his fundraising power?  Their elections are this November.  They don’t have time to wait and see if Christie can get clear of these accusations.

Without a way to earn those chits as the party’s fundraiser-in-chief, Chris Christie will be just one of the pack in 2016.  And these charges, even if they are ultimately proven false, will have done permanent damage to Christie’s presidential aspirations.

Wake-Up Call

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