New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is getting more support from fellow Republicans as he tries to repair his image amid a traffic-jam scandal that Democrats are using to embarrass him and damage his potential Republican presidential campaign in 2016.
This will be another important week for Christie. He is scheduled to deliver his State of the State address to the legislature Tuesday, which will give him an opportunity to deliver another apology for the episode and at the same time return to conducting state business.
The fuss stems from a massive traffic jam apparently engineered by Christie aides in Fort Lee, N. J., last September. Emails indicate that the snarl was designed as an act of retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, for refusing to endorse Christie in his bid for re-election, which the governor won overwhelmingly. Two access lanes of traffic were shut down at the George Washington Bridge for several days.
There is no evidence that Christie knew of the retribution. But he apologized for the incident at a news conference last Thursday, said he had nothing to do with it, and fired two aides whom he held responsible.
This has prompted a huge focus on Christie's aggressive leadership style and his temperament. His critics say the episode shows that Christie is a bully and his administration is infected with an overly aggressive, vengeful mentality. Several investigations are underway, including inquiries by the New Jersey legislature and the news media. Six New Jersey residents have filed a federal lawsuit against Christie, the State of New Jersey and others over alleged negative consequences from the traffic jams, such as being late for work and suffering from extra stress, Fox News and the New York Daily News reported.
One of the most telling comments came from former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, a Republican and former mentor to Christie who has become a critic. "On the one hand," Kean told The Washington Post, "I think he's got a lot to offer. I think he's the most able politician since Bill Clinton. On the other hand, you look at these other qualities and ask, 'Do you really want that in your president?'" Kean has been estranged from Christie since the governor tried unsuccessfully to oust Kean's son, state Sen. Thomas Kean Jr., as Republican minority leader in the New Jersey Senate.
But Christie is now getting support from senior Republicans. Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, told NBC News, "I think what you saw the other day was leadership ... that showed that, look, everyone is fallible. We all make mistakes. But the real question is, what do you do when mistakes happen?"
Priebus added: "There's no question, he admitted mistakes happened. He admitted he trusted people that lied to him. America's a forgiving people but they're forgiving when you take ownership, you admit mistakes, you take corrective action and that's what Chris Christie showed."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told CNN that Christie "did an excellent job" at his news conference and he will move beyond the scandal unless more information comes out that ties the governor directly to it. "I think that he can now move on as long as another shoe doesn't drop," McCain said.
Haley Barbour, former Republican governor of Mississippi and a popular figure in the GOP establishment, told The Post, "The liberal media is chasing this story as if it's the Lincoln assassination and writing baloney about him being a bully. I think his effusive personality and enthusiasm is and will be an asset, and as he continues to lead, people will look back at this and shrug."
That's probably minimizing the impact. Unlike other scandals that threatened promising presidential candidates, such as allegations of adultery and excessive drinking, Christie's problem is that the actions of his aides apparently hurt everyday people. This could give the traffic scandal staying power.
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 email@example.com and on Facebook and Twitter.