Like many, I think, it was initially sort of mystifying to me why a traffic jam in Fort Lee at the George Washington Bridge was a big deal, or somehow a bigger deal than normal. That's life in and around New York after all - the traffic problems at our bridges and tunnels.
It's instructive, I think, that Chris Christie's disastrous handling of what has turned out to be quite possibly a career destroying scandal is only just beginning to register with the people most directly affected - people in New Jersey, who probably have the lowest opinion possible of the politicians who serve them. Which is saying something, because you'd think you couldn't do worse than how New Yorkers view Albany. But you'd be surprised.
Unsurprised, though, is probably the best explanation of local reaction; it's hardly surprising to discover that Christie was more of the same in Jersey politics, more sweetheart deals for close pals, more vinidictive revenge on those who stood in his way. And it's no surprise that, when caught, Christie and his people blame their accusers and the media, or insist that somehow people didn't understand the last time they tried to artfully dodge the hard questions.
What's surprising, I think, and what maybe throws people off, is the scale of Christie's behavior - "larger than life" barely does it justice. It's astonishing, really, that anyone, certainly anyone in a major role for the state of New Jersey, would look at causing an hours long back up in Fort Lee which would affect the Bridge as either an appropriate form of political retribution or a desirable set of impacts for the local communities. It's a reminder that, around here, to register as truly scandalous, you really have to think big. (Sorry... we're not supposed to use "big" or "large" or... come on, we've got to get over this thing about Christie and adjectives of a certain sort.)
I've probably tipped my hand, but how can one not: it's absurd to me to think that we're watching anything but the unfolding of an obvious, all too clear set of events: clearly, Christie's people, in his office and at the Port Authority, engineered a shutdown of lanes in Fort Lee, reducing access to the Bridge, with disastrous impacts. I don't think you can be Chris Christie and not know or pretend not to have at least allowed it to happen. We know what happened - the question is, can it be proved (I suspect it can), and the more important question is... Why?
Count me as one of those who doesn't buy, for a second, that this was about anything as mundane as endorsing Christie by Mark Sokolich, Fort Lee's colorful, but hardly crucial, Mayor. It's hard to explain, exactly why Fort Lee matters less than other New York facing towns on those opposite cliffs, but really, that's just how it is. It's partly that Jersey City and Hoboken serve as bigger hubs (because of trains) to NYC, attracting more New York ex-pats than others. It's partly that Fort Lee is part of Bergen County, whose tony suburban enclaves were already locked in to Christie's victory anyway, while the other cities offered the tantalizing prospect of boosting Christie's minority vote more than Fort Lee ever could.
I tend to buy that either Christie's people were annoyed about the development project being built right by the Bridge entrance (it dovetails with Hoboken's Mayor's claims, after all, about being blackmailed about development in her city for Sandy money, and underlines Christie's ties to real estate interests), or that Christie was looking to punish Loretta Weinberg, president of the State Senate, whose district includes Fort Lee (and makes her far more powerful, ultimately, in shaping politics in the northern region). But these are just theories. At some point, someone has to figure this out for the story to really make sense.
It's the lack of sense, really, that has driven this story as far, and as wide, as its grown to be in New Jersey politics. A casual tale about dramatic retribution, by itself, wouldn't be more than a blip in local coverage, even one on the scale of shutting down traffic in Fort Lee for four straight days. No, what's been so odd is the fog at the center of this story, the way Christie's people first said "what traffic jam?" then said "it was just a traffic study" when no sensible analyst of traffic patterns or urban planning would recommend wreaking havoc to study the obvious. It's been odd the way Christie said "I need to get to the bottom of this" then casually fired the one member of his staff who clearly knew what happened and why and refused to ask her what she knew and when she knew it. It's been odd that Christie seems, still, oddly passive about just how difficult and inconvenient the traffic mess had to have been, especially given that being in your car and having trouble getting somewhere is the daily language of conversation all over his state. Two things as certain as sunrise in Jersey politics: people complaining about property taxes, and people complaining about traffic and tolls. Why does Christie seem so disconnected when the latter comes up?
The idea that Christie served, even briefly, even just for these off year moments when no one cares, as a serious Presidential contender in the GOP is really just a reminder of how broken the party remains, how unable to find true leadership and a sense of direction. Like MItt Romney, John McCain and the clown car of still viable names, the true likelihood of a Christie presidency was farfetched long before that week last September which now seems likely to ruin him completely. His personal demeanor is off-putting (yes, even in his brusque home state). His known views are unpopular. His unknown views (on, say, foreign policy) would likely make him even less viable in primaries. Yet, there he sat, right up to his reelection, as the Republicans great hope. That was never going to last. No one, though, could have predicted exactly what's happened since.
Because I never took his national ambitions all that seriously (want it all you want; that doesn't scare me), my general opinion of Christie has always been mostly ambivalent. I wouldn't want him as my Governor... but then, I wouldn't live in New Jersey on a bet, or a dare, or as long as there's space on the boat back across the river. I thought he did a good job of putting his strengths on display and paving over his weaknesses, but I tended to think it couldn't last, not the way people opposed to him who know the details better than I ever will kept griping (that property tax thing is a real disaster for them over there, and Christie's in no real position to fix it, A1; there's more). I figured Christie would enter the 2016 race, prove unpopular with the far right and probably have to drop out as a consensus candidate emerged. For a while I thought maybe the Republican Establishment would just throw him up knowing Clinton can't be beaten. Now, I think he's finished.
It's silly, really, to point out obvious things... like the fact that Christie is, clearly, his own worst enemy, both because he was so ham-handed about exerting control over the state, and because he seems so arrogant about being challenged on that very control. It's silly to point out how avoidable this all was, how much Christie and his people should have known this would likely blow up in their faces. But it's even more silly, as some are trying - though very few - to pretend that we don't know what happened here or somehow this could all just be benign. It isn't, and at some very fundamental level, how we deal with what Christie did, and how he tried to wiggle away from it, is a test of drawing lines governing ourselves, and calling some things simply out of bounds. It's funny, yes, to make fun of Jersey, look down on it from our lofty perch here on the other side... but treating badly like this, on purpose, really is just wrong. We should say so, and hold to it. And if we can't... well, then maybe we should just buy that bridge they keep trying to sell us.