Why Chris Christie's bridge scandal isn't his biggest 2016 threat

Yes, the bridge story is problematic. But so are Christie's politics.

(Image credit: (AP Photo/Mel Evans))

The revelation that one of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's (R) top aides gleefully greenlit a vendetta-driven traffic jam could very well threaten the governor's presumed 2016 aspirations. Yet while politically damaging and laced with all the hallmarks of a seedy made-for-TV drama, the whole brouhaha actually isn't the biggest roadblock to a Christie White House bid.

To recap: Newly published emails linked Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff to Christie, to the closure of some lanes on the George Washington Bridge as payback against a Democratic mayor who wouldn't endorse his re-election. Christie previously denied that anyone in his administration had a hand in the closures, which snarled traffic and hindered emergency responders, possibly leading to the death of a 91-year-old woman.

The e-mails and other correspondence undercut Christie's claim, and raised the question of whether Christie himself was involved. The consequences of the closures aren't as dire, say, as voting to authorize military force in Iraq. But inconveniencing hundreds of commuters over a meaningless spat is about as contemptuous of your constituents as you can get.

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Many pundits, like New York's Jonathan Chait, predicted the story "will probably destroy Christie's chances in 2016."

However, it's unclear so far out from the election how much Bridge-gate will actually matter come 2016. Political scandals can have an incredibly short shelf life — remember when the IRS supposedly targeted Tea Party groups? — and this one may be no exception.

So far, only Christie's aide and appointees have been linked to the scandal. The governor could mitigate the damage by professing outraged ignorance and then firing those involved, something he's indicated will happen in short order.

"What I've seen today for the first time is unacceptable," he said in a statement Wednesday evening. "I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge.

"This behavior is not representative of me or my administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions" he added.

Sure, Christie can be seen as woefully incompetent for not knowing what his inner circle was up to — that is, assuming you believe he really had no idea what was going on. And some have argued that, if nothing else, Christie can be blamed for fostering the kind of bullying culture that led to the bridge payback in the first place.

Then again, a swift response could also reaffirm the governor's image as one who has no tolerance for political games. Before Christie released that statement, Slate's John Dickerson argued that while Christie was "very good at giving advice" on how to lead, the scandal had given him an opportunity to "show rather than tell."

And as GOP consultant Mike Murphy wrote, "Christie has already blasted the main chortling staffer in question. The circus will move on."

Indeed, the controversy may have done Christie a favor, obscuring the fact that the governor this week signed a law granting in-state tuition rates to the children of illegal immigrants, a policy that could prove anathema to the Republican Party faithful (just ask Rick Perry).

That gets at Christie's real problem in running for president, which is far bigger than a localized tit-for-tat: Whether he can convince the GOP base that he's truly one of them.

In addition to the mini-Dream Act, Christie supported gun control efforts and accepted ObamaCare's expansion of Medicaid.

Troubled by those perceived moderate tendencies, only one-third of "very conservative" voters have a favorable opinion of Christie, per a recent survey. In a GOP primary, with its conservative-heavy electorate, Christie would be vulnerable to a challenge on the right from any number of the conservative darlings who might also run. In particular, there are serious questions about whether Christie can compete outside his home turf in the the important, early Southern primaries.

Christie's liberal critics have long wondered why everyone doesn't think the guy is a total jerk — he has, after all, made a habit of yelling at teachers. The bridge scandal could certainly reinforce that negative image, further sinking Christie's odds of winning higher office.

Still, Christie always faced a tough road to the GOP nomination, with a problematic conservative litmus test that would have existed even without Bridge-gate.

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Jon Terbush

Jon Terbush is an associate editor at TheWeek.com covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.