Before Bridgegate, Chris Christie was a very viable candidate for the Republican nomination for president. Despite his image as a northern moderate who would have trouble connecting with the party's more radical base, Christie could have raised the money and built an organization to overcome those issues. The same concerns were raised about Mitt Romney who more or less cruised to the nomination in 2012 due to superior fundraising and organization.
All of that has changed in the last few weeks. Bridgegate is devastating for Christie because it undermines the strongest argument, and the best narrative, for his presidential campaign. Christie was supposed to be the tough Republican who was conservative, but when necessary could work with Democrats to get things done for his state, and by extension the country. The signature moment from Christie's first term in office was when after Hurricane Sandy, he stood shoulder to shoulder with President Obama to try to bring help to residents of the Jersey shore regions hit hard by the storm.
Now Christie is the guy who caused a traffic nightmare of the most heavily trafficked bridge in the world because his office was angry at a low-level Democratic politician who had refused to endorse him in a race that, for all intents and purposes, Christie had already won. The specifics of the incident are important. Christie did not make this stand over an issue of principle or something in the interest of his constituents, but over an endorsement. For a candidate who was supposed to be able combine solid conservative values with the ability to get things done, this will be particularly damaging.
Much of the discussion in recent days has been about whether or not Christie is a bully. Being seen as a bully is not something that will prevent Christie from being a strong candidate, particularly because a portion of the population is inevitably going to think somebody who looks and talks like Christie is a bully anyway. If the scandal only reinforced the worst thing that some people thought about Christie, it would not be a big deal. However, the scandal makes is impossible for Christie to take advantage of the best thing that people used to think about the New Jersey governor, that he could put partisan issues aside to address real problems facing people.
Additionally, Christie's main appeal to Republican donors and leaders was that he was the electable candidate. This scandal is therefore particularly bad because it hurts him most among swing voters. He can no longer appeal to voters who are tired of partisan politics and partisan fighting because this scandal is, at heart, a massive overreaction to a minor partisan concern. Additionally, many swing voters are suburban and the type of people for whom deliberately causing a traffic jam resonates particularly badly.
Traffic jams are a uniquely non-partisan issue. There are few issues that enjoy broader consensus from Americans on the right, left or center than hatred for being stuck in traffic. Had Christie expressed his anger by shutting down a program in Fort Lee or reducing a budget item for that town, it would have a different impact, but Christie's political operation chose to seek revenge on Mayor Mark Sokolich by causing problems for thousands of hard-working citizens of all political views.
This is an outrageous thing for any politician to do, but for one who has, at least in part, sought to build an image of being different from other politicians, it is even worse. Christie's government acted in a way that suggested that politics are more important than governance. Most politicians do that, but few do it so baldly, and so unequivocally, as Christie did. It is true that Christie himself may not have personally called for partially shutting down several lanes of traffic, but that is no longer relevant. If Christie's best defense is that although a climate of politics at its worst characterized his administration at the highest levels of his administration, but that he did not personally make the worst decisions, he is effectively finished as a national candidate.
For Christie to survive this scandal and still be a plausible national candidate it will not be enough for him to succeed in convincing people he did not know about the specifics of this incident. In some respects, that particular issue is a distraction. The bigger issue is that this scandal reveals Christie as the type of politician who thinks of politics and governance a narrow, partisan and self-centered way. The fact that so many senior people around him personally felt confident in making this decision makes it very difficult for Christie to evade that criticism and the damage it will do to his aspirations for national office.