What's ahead for embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie won't be pretty. Investigations. Lawsuits. Ridicule. Doubt. A credibility gap. And quite possibly severe damage to his prospects as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2016.
Christie can recover. Consider what Bill Clinton did in overcoming charges of adultery and draft dodging during his 1992 Democratic presidential campaign, which ended successfully. Consider how Republican George W. Bush overcame allegations of youthful drinking and past drug use during the 2000 campaign, which he won. And consider how Democrat Barack Obama dealt successfully with a political crisis arising from the inflammatory and divisive views of his pastor in Chicago in 2008.
Christie's scandal is different, and worse. It involves an apparent act of political retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee, N. J., because the official didn't endorse Christie's re-election bid last year. But the price was paid by everyday people: innumerable motorists who suffered massive delays when Fort Lee traffic lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge were shut down for four days last September, apparently at the instigation of Christie aides. The governor says he didn't know about it at the time, and he has fired two aides whom he is holding responsible.
There are also questions about whether emergency vehicles were delayed significantly by the resulting traffic jams, and whether innocent people were harmed as a result. A 91-year-old woman had a medical emergency and may have died during the traffic mess, according to media reports. The circumstances aren't clear and it isn't known if traffic delays kept emergency responders from reaching her or getting her to a hospital in time.
In political terms, "Bridgegate" is devastating to Christie for a simple reason: It undercuts his image as an efficient if abrasive leader, and reinforces the impression that he is a bully.
At a two-hour news conference Thursday, Christie responded to media reports about emails that indicate some of his key aides had shut down traffic lanes to the bridge in order to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat. The governor said his aides misled him. He went on to apologize in person to Sokolich and expressed his contrition to the people of New Jersey. "I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team," Christie said. "I am who I am, but I am not a bully."
Political strategists of both parties said what Christie needs to do now is get back to work and make clear that he is doing all he can to make life better for his constituents.
David Axelrod, formerly a senior political adviser to President Obama, said on Twitter that Christie handled his news conference "about as well as he could." Axelrod added: "Unless smoking gun turns up tying him to scheme, or others arise, he lives to fight another day."
But his critics – and there are many of them both in his home state and in Washington – are looking into every aspect of the case, and more embarrassing disclosures are very possible. "We have yet to hear from the lawyers representing the commuters and local government officials who suffered as a result of the traffic delays," wrote GOP strategist Ed Rogers in the Washington Post Thursday.
"There will be plenty of aggrieved parties who are going to want some payback. We will also undoubtedly hear from those who, when confronted with legal action, try to strike a deal by revealing what they know, attempting to save themselves and blame others."
It will be a long and rocky road for Chris Christie.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook and Twitter.