- Timothy Stanley: With bridge scandal, Chris Christie's rising star is tarnished
- E-mails between Christie operatives paint lane closures as political payback
- He says voters may well see Christie as bullying kingpin using government power to hurt them
- Stanley: Dems, conservatives who want Christie to lose now have stick to beat him with
Politics is a cruel road. One minute you're sailing along the open highway, winning elections, keynoting political conventions. Next minute you're accused of something politically dirty and you're stuck in the gridlock of scandal.
Let's consider New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who in November was "the GOP's lone superstar." That was how I described him after he won re-election by 22 points. But, I added, his "mixed record in office may come back to haunt the governor and be used against him." Two months later, and in a slightly different context than I would have expected, this appears to be coming true.
In September 2013, lanes were closed on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge. At first it was dismissed as a "traffic study" and Christie turned early accusations that he had something to do with it into a political joke. ("I worked the cones, actually," Christie said, deflecting a question at a news conference last month. "Unbeknownst to everybody I was actually the guy out there, in overalls and a hat.")
But e-mails obtained on Wednesday morning confirm that it wasn't so funny, and the closure actually appears to have been an act of retribution against a local Democratic mayor. "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," wrote Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy on Christie's senior staff, in an e-mail to David Wildstein, a Christie appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge.
This led to long traffic jams and safety hazards, none of which apparently bothered Wildstein. In one exchange, a person whose name has been redacted from the e-mails and text messages wrote to Wildstein that he was worried about children on school buses, and Wildstein replied, "They are the children of Buono voters," a reference to Barbara Buono, Christie's opponent in his last election. What an ugly mind Wildstein must have.
Christie doesn't appear to be personally, directly linked to the decision to close the lanes, but the story hurts him anyway. The involvement of his staff contradicts his claims that they were innocent, and voters are only going to see this as an affirmation of certain prejudices that they might hold against the New Jersey kingpin.
The Garden State has a reputation for hardball machine politics (it was the state of the legendary Democratic boss, Frank Hague), colored by TV portrayals of corruption and crime ("The Sopranos," "Boardwalk Empire"). And Christie has an image of being a bit of a bully, of laughing down opponents.
Jonathan Chait, in New York Magazine, writes "The bridge story itself, while small in nature, reveals a political culture around Christie of people who have no business holding power." He has a point. Democrats have alleged that Wildstein was paid $150,000 a year for a job that, mysteriously, had no job description and for which he has failed to release his resume.
But the real reason why the scandal resonates for so many is that it involves sitting in traffic. That's something all Americans do far too much of, so they can immediately put themselves in the seats of those poor saps stuck on the road. Incidentally, there is evidence that ambulances were slowed down, too. In at least two cases, response times were doubled.
Are Christie's presidential ambitions dashed? Not necessarily. He's a resourceful politician and it's still many months before campaigning starts in earnest. But now his opponents have a stick to beat him with. Best of all, it's an anti-government stick. If Republicans stand for anything right now, it's opposing the ability of government to mess with the individual's life -- and here we have a classic example of politicians taking revenge on each other at the expense of the average citizen.
Even if Christie deflected the criticism of GOP candidates like Marco Rubio or Rand Paul (and he remains a popular man who won a big blue state), he would still have to face Democrats in November 2016 empowered by this story to say to the electorate, "He's not the nice guy next door. He's a bad man whose staff slowed down ambulances." As Andrew Sullivan put it, "He has been revealed as a deeply petty man, willing to sacrifice the public good to pursue narrow political vendettas -- not exactly a qualification for a president. But he has also repeatedly denied all of this. Is he a bully? Or a liar? Or both?"
Whatever the answer, the bridge to nowhere story has put a puncture in Christie's tire. Liberals who fear him and conservatives who don't trust him will take pleasure in that.
Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.
Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.