Despite Gov. Chris Christie's tour de force of a press conference in which he took on all comers, the New Jersey chief executive needs to settle down and accept that he is in for a bumpy ride going forward. No one, especially not the Democrats who control the state legislature, is going to let him walk away from it that easily.
Christie's press conference was a lesson for any politician embroiled in a scandal. He was upfront, forthright, took responsibility, established his innocence and set down consequences for those he knew to be involved. In the end though, it won't make a bit of difference. Even if he's as innocent of any wrongdoing as he said he was, the misbehavior of his aides opens the door for Democrats in Trenton to investigate everything from his campaign expenditures to what he had for breakfast Tuesday.
Politicians who are smart enough to know that big issues can bring big problems – like Iran-Contra, White House-directed IRS harassment of political opponents or Benghazi – act with great care when they find themselves immersed in such affairs. Even before such events come to light, they exercise extreme caution, behave in a circumspect manner and do all they can to avoid leaving a paper trail while making sure everyone has their stories straight.
That's why it's often the seemingly petty, small scandals that bring a politician down. Watergate started as "a third rate burglary." It ended up forcing the resignation of the president of the United States and almost took the Republican Party permanently down the tubes. In the case of "bridgegate," political operatives who believed they were part of Team Christie chose to throw their weight around just because they could. It was selfish, immature, irresponsible and bad governance. Now it has provided New Jersey Democrats with an opening to start investigating the governor, his administration and his political operation which, when you are on the receiving end of such an inquiry, is never a good thing.
"Bridgegate" is an obvious example of how political power can be misused and has led to the kind of scandal that only seems to touch Republicans. It's not that Democrats are never guilty of the same kinds of things; it's just that they are much better at covering their tracks. Whole cities – Chicago comes immediately to mind – operate on the basis of rewarding friends and punishing not only enemies but just those people who won't get in line at any given time. Perhaps there's a lesson for the GOP in there somewhere, but it's probably better that they resist the temptation to find it.
There's another lesson here, one that applies to anyone running for an executive position, but especially to Christie.
In his recent re-election, Christie and his team apparently concluded they needed to run up the numbers, to show he was strong among all demographics in order to burnish his appeal as a presidential contender in 2016. They did – but that kind of "lonely victory" comes with a price because it did nothing to boost the GOP's numbers in the New Jersey legislature.
Going into the election some analysts thought there was an outside chance the Republicans could take control of the state senate. That would have reinforced Christie's position in Trenton and given him additional allies the latest turn of events demonstrates he so clearly needs.
By way of comparison, Nixon did the same thing in 1972. He won 49 states, but only by turning out voters who wanted to reward him with a second term but would be voting for the Democrat candidates running under him for the U.S. House and Senate. He didn't strengthen the Republican position in Congress by appreciable numbers, which helped immeasurably when the Democrats decided to turn that "third-rate burglary" into the means to destroy their political opposition.
Christie's unwillingness to campaign for re-election as part of a Republican team is now paying dividends for the Democrats, dividends they will reap for some time to come. It won't be long before we once again start hearing phrases like "the cover up may be worse than the crime" that were once very much in vogue in papers like the New York Times, but which somehow lost their appeal once Bill Clinton won the presidency. They will find reasons to investigate – and to widen those investigations once begun – because the scare quotes and headlines that can be generated will knock Christie down a peg or three when it comes time to run for president. They may, for the moment, have lost Trenton, but what is that in comparison with the White House?