N.J. Democrats may risk backlash in Chris Christie probe

This story originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

Ever since the moment four days of lane closures on the George Washington Bridge erupted into a full-bore political scandal, New Jersey Democratic leaders have been eager to offer worst-case scenarios for how investigations into the episode might play out for Chris Christie.

Never mind that the scandal could sink the likely GOP presidential front-runner -- some state Democrats have wondered aloud whether things could get far worse for the popular Republican governor.

  New Jersey Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who has led the state legislature’s early investigation into “Bridgegate,” openly speculated about the “impeachable offense” that Christie might have committed if he is shown to have used his official position to enact a political vendetta.

And on MSNBC, state Sen. Ray Lesniak labeled Christie the “liar-in-chief,” adding his theory that “obstruction of justice is what is going to be his biggest problem.”

Indeed, for nearly two weeks now, MSNBC has served as something of a 24/7 open mic for Garden State Democrats to not only chide the recently re-elected governor for emails and text messages that cost four members of his administration their jobs, but also to speculate about what two legislative inquiries under way in Trenton will find.

Christie’s allies in the legislature have taken note of this dynamic and have begun to push back against it more forcefully.

“You have guys like Ray Lesniak, who . . . ought to know better, out there making bombastic comments about arriving at conclusions -- the Red Queen type thing: sentence now, verdict later,” New Jersey Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll told RCP. “He’s arrived at his conclusions, and it concerns me that the facts aren’t going to stand in the way.”

And Christie’s New Jersey allies aren’t the only ones taking note of his foes’ aggressive public pronouncements. David Redlawsk -- a close observer of New Jersey politics, who conducts the Rutgers-Eagleton poll -- pointed out the political risks in Democrats pressing too hard, even in the face of a Pew poll released Monday showing that a majority of respondents do not believe Christie when he said he did not have knowledge of his aides’ involvement in the lane closures until the incident became public.

Rather than under-promising and over-delivering on evidence of Christie’s role in Bridgegate, several of his political opponents have been doing the opposite. 

“You start off mentioning impeachment at the beginning, but things have to rise to a pretty high level of malfeasance before impeachment is even a potential reality,” Redlawsk said. “And so, then you’ve created an expectation.”

Some New Jersey Democrats seem to have realized the risk of that potential miscalculation, making pains recently to sound less gleeful about the prospect that Bridgegate could unravel Christie’s ascendant career.

In the Bergen Record on Monday, a pair of U.S. congressmen from New Jersey advised their fellow Democrats in the state not to go too far.  

Rep. Rush Holt warned against being seen as playing “a game of ‘Gotcha,’” while Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. said that state Democrats would be “stupid” to turn the investigations into an overtly partisan grudge match.

“We need to simply get the facts out and let the chips fall where they may,” Pascrell told the Record.

In an interview Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Wisniewski eased off when asked whether there has been a rush to judgment.

“What I said . . . is there's absolutely no document that connects the governor to this,” Wisniewski said. “His office is connected, not him. I've said that talking about impeachment is premature. There's no connection that he knew or that he directed it. What we do know is that someone senior in his staff sent an email to close the lanes.”

Wisniewski, however, was not willing to apply the brakes entirely. In the same interview, he pointed a finger at Christie, saying it is “hard to believe” that the governor “knew nothing until January 8,” when the incriminating emails exchanged between members of his staff were published.  

As the legislative and media inquiries into the episode widen, no one is suggesting that Democrats shouldn’t feel buoyed politically by the still unfolding mess in Trenton, which has cast a shadow over the Republican leader, whom many observers believe is best positioned to defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016 (should the former secretary of state run).

Over the weekend, another front to the scandal opened when Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer accused Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno of threatening to withhold funds dedicated to Superstorm Sandy relief in Zimmer’s hard-hit city unless the Democratic mayor signed off on a development project favored by the Christie administration.

Zimmer said that she met Sunday with federal investigators to discuss her allegations -- which Guadagno and other Christie officials strongly denied on Monday -- and turned over a personal journal that Zimmer said detailed her conversations on the issue with the lieutenant governor and a second administration official. 

One former elected official who offered a unique perspective on Bridgegate is Jeff Smith -- a Democrat and former Missouri state senator who spent a year in federal prison for obstruction of justice in an investigation into a campaign finance violation.

Now an assistant professor of politics and advocacy at the New School in New York City, Smith penned an article published Friday in Politico Magazine about why members of the Christie administration (and, potentially, the governor himself) should be concerned about criminal charges

But even as he sounded the alarm as to how badly this could all turn out for Christie, Smith agreed that some state Democrats have erred in trying to hang the governor in the court of public opinion before the legislative and federal inquiries have scarcely gotten off the ground.

This overeager handling of the situation could come back to haunt them, Smith suggested, even if a smoking gun is ultimately uncovered. 

Given intra-party divisions, “some Democrats will need to be convinced in order to vote to impeach or convict,” Smith said. “And it will help them take that vote, eventually, if public opinion turns against Christie. And that's much more likely, I think, if you start out with a low-key, just-the-facts-ma'am approach and then uncover damning evidence than if you begin by screaming impeachment from the rooftops, a la U.S. House Republicans circa '98.”

The comparison to the Republican House-led impeachment proceedings against President Clinton -- which led ultimately to a backlash-inspired boost in Clinton’s approval rating -- may be an inexact analogy, but it is nonetheless a lasting example of the pitfalls that can occur when one political party pushes too hard, too soon, against a popular executive.

Christie’s best bet for surviving Bridgegate with his governorship and 2016 hopes intact -- and perhaps even stronger than ever -- may well be linked to Democrats overplaying their hand.

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.