News / USA

    Christie at Risk in Bridge Scandal

    New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie gestures during a news conference Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, at the Statehouse in Trenton, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
    New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie gestures during a news conference Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, at the Statehouse in Trenton, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
    New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has never been one to shun the public spotlight.  But he can’t have enjoyed parrying with the press in a nationally televised news conference Thursday to answer allegations that his administration shut down traffic lanes on the George Washington Bridge linking New York City and New Jersey last September as political payback aimed at a Democratic mayor who declined to endorse him for re-election last year.
     
    The bridge scandal has tarnished Christie’s political image as a tough but pragmatic and effective governor with bipartisan appeal who many experts had projected was in the top tier of potential Republican presidential contenders in 2016.   Up until recently, mainstream and moderate Republican political strategists had been licking their chops at the prospect of Christie running for the Republican nomination as the best candidate with the potential to appeal to independent and even some Democratic voters.  Christie stood out among other potential candidates like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio because he has demonstrated appeal beyond conservative activists and could broaden the vote for Republicans in the next election.
     
    Bridge Over Troubled Waters
     
    Christie apologized for the bridge controversy Thursday in a nationally televised news conference that went on for well over an hour.   The governor insisted that staff members lied to him about their involvement in the closure of lanes on the George Washington Bridge last September that snarled traffic In Fort Lee, New Jersey.  Email and text messages obtained by news organizations on Wednesday strongly suggested the lane closures were orchestrated by Christie aides as retribution directed at Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, who had refused to endorse Christie’s re-election bid last year.
     
    At his news conference, Christie announced that he had fired Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly after he said she lied to him about her involvement in the bridge controversy.  One email released Wednesday from Kelly, said simply, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”  The email was sent to one of the governor’s top appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and a longtime Christie friend, David Wildstein.  His email response was simple:  “Got it.”  The Port authority has the responsibility for operating the GW Bridge.  Wildstein resigned his position last month.
     
    Christie’s Political Future at Stake
     
    All of this comes as Christie prepares for his inauguration as governor for a second term later this month and amid continuing speculation about his presidential aspirations in 2016.  If Christie has been truthful and he was completely in the dark about what his staff was doing, he may be able to overcome this in the long term.  But if there are more revelations in the weeks to come and if it turns out he knew more than he says about the bridge shenanigans, Christie’s national political standing may be damaged beyond repair, leaving the 2016 Republican presidential field to a competing group of true conservatives with little proven appeal to independent voters and political centrists.
     
    One of the more memorable lines from Christie’s news conference was, “I am not a bully”, a response to questions about the image he has created during his tenure as governor and whether that may have encouraged his staff to react aggressively to political opponents.  It was a line reminiscent of what President Richard Nixon famously said during the height of the Watergate scandal in the 1970’s when he said, “I am not a crook.”  Unfortunately for Nixon, his claim turned out not to be true.  Christie will have work extra hard in the months to come to back up his statement that he is not a political bully and he may have to smooth down some of his rough edges if he hopes to present himself as a viable presidential contender two years from now.
     
    Obama Looks For Comeback in 2014
     
    2014 is shaping up as a crucial year in Barack Obama’s presidency.  2013 was a year of setbacks for the president, due largely to the fumbled rollout of his signature domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act.  Mr. Obama will be under enormous political pressure to right the ship this year to avoid the fate of other two-term presidents who found themselves adrift halfway through their second terms.  The most recent example was President George W. Bush who saw his public approval ratings plummet in the aftermath of the war in Iraq and his administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina.  His image in the polls, by the way, has only recently started to creep up, and he’s been out of office since early 2009!
     
    President Obama has a lot of work ahead to recoup his political standing with the public.  A year ago, the president began the year with a Gallup approval rating of 52 percent.  But that number tracked downward throughout the year and by last month his Gallup approval number had fallen to only 41 percent.  Most political analysts will tell you that a key indicator of how the president’s political party will perform during a midterm congressional election is the approval rating.  If Mr. Obama’s stays low throughout this year that could be good news for Republicans in the elections and could keep the Obama White House in a political funk right through the final two years of his presidency.
     
    Income Inequality Versus Obamacare
     
    2014 is a congressional election year in the U.S.  All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are at stake along with 35 of the 100 Senate seats and 36 state governorships.  The stakes are enormous for both parties.  At this early stage most analysts see the Republicans holding on to their majority in the House.  Democrats would need to pick up 17 seats to win back the House and historically the second midterm election of an eight-year presidency usually goes against the president’s party in Congress.
     
    Republicans, though, do have a realistic chance of winning control of the Senate, now held by Democrats.  Republicans need to gain six Senate seats in order to win the majority and the reason many experts give them a chance is because many of the Senate seats Democrats are defending are in Republican-leaning states where conservative activists have traditionally fared better at getting their supporters out to the polls than Democrats have.  Still, the battle for the Senate is expected to be close and a number of individual races will get national attention this year.
     
    Republicans are expected to renew their focus on the problems with Obamacare as their top priority for the election cycle.  Democrats want to pivot to issues associated with the general theme of income inequality—restoring unemployment benefits for the long term jobless, raising the minimum wage and pointing out where they believe the health care law is succeeding.
     
    The first salvo goes to President Obama.  He will deliver his State of the Union Address on January 28th and that will be his best opportunity to lay out an agenda for the year and put Republicans on the defensive over issues like income inequality, social mobility and extending unemployment benefits for the long term jobless.
     
    Republicans are likely to respond with continued attacks on Obamacare and a philosophical argument that the private sector, not government, is best suited to spark economic growth and create new jobs.

    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.

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