Chris Christie’s Road Rage

The New Jersey governor's belated mea culpa won't appease the his voters, who are stuck in traffic. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

For days pundits have been offering the oh-so-predictable bromide that Chris Christie needed to apologize for his aides’ role in causing a four-hour traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge connecting New York and New Jersey -- just to spite a Democratic mayor.

They also made the obvious point that the New Jersey Republican needed to take responsibility and fire those accountable. Now, in a painful press conference, he’s done that.

Whether that’s enough to save Christie’s shot at a presidential bid and remain a leader in the Republican Party, as the columnists say, remains to be seen.

What’s not gotten attention is the role traffic plays in New Jersey’s psyche and why that makes this such a blow to Christie. Auto congestion is found all over the country, of course, as anyone who has sat on the “5” in Los Angeles or the “Ryan” in Chicago can testify with rage. But in the Garden State, the nation’s most suburban, traffic holds a special place.

New Jersey has long been the nation’s most densely populated state, which means cars are more densely populated. Bruce Springsteen waxed poetic about "hemi-powered drones scream down the boulevard" but in most cases the screaming is coming from frustrated drivers.

Despite its Sopranos-and-Springsteen image, New Jersey’s had its share of Brahmin governors who best mirrored the state’s still leafy horse country rather than the irritable driver. But Christie has been a pitch-perfect representative of New Jersey’s blunt style and simmering anger. (Try to imagine Christie running in, say, polite Alabama or Vermont.)

Bluntness got Christie to where he is, both in New Jersey and nationally. It made him seem authentic in a world of cookie-cutter pols, a point Christe made on Thursday, saying he’s not “focus-group scripted.”  

Can the same bluntness dig him out of the mess? Pundits are going to keep mouthing off about that. But by making traffic worse in a state that lives and dies by cars, he’s deeply wounded himself at home.

The chattering classes will speculate, but New Jersey voters may be less likely to forgive. And if Christie’s poll numbers drop at home, that’ll be crushing for him.

His appeal has been that of a Republican in a blue state. If New Jersey voters turn red with rage, that’s crippling. His sporting a gaudy New Jersey lapel pin with the stars and stripes won’t help.

One more thing: New Jersey’s governorship is the most powerful in the country. There’s no separate elected Attorney General, for example. No other elected official in the state could therefore carry any of the blame for the George Washington Bridge jam.

That concentration of executive authority helped Woodrow Wilson spring from a never-having-run-for-office university president to New Jersey governor to President in less than two years.  

Voters would be right to ask, If Christie has more juice than any governor in the country and blunders so badly, how would he do in Washington?

The George Washington Bridge has long outnumbered the other crossings in the New York area in the number of suicides who leap to their deaths into the Hudson River. Will Christie turn out to have inflicted his own mortal wound on the busiest bridge in America? Pundits will opine "time will tell." But really it's Jersey drivers who will determine Christie's future. 

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