Facing investigations, subpoenas, and political attacks stemming from the George Washington Bridge scandal, there's no doubt New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is in for a tough time in coming months. What many Democrats are mulling at the moment is how they can help make that time as tough as possible -- without overplaying their hand.
"I don't think he understands fully yet how this will derail planning for running for president," says one Democratic Party official of Christie. "He's going to have to spend the next six months to a year, when he should be hiring staff and building a national network, instead dealing with investigations he never imagined before. And that's paralyzing to a person trying to build a presidential campaign."
For Democrats, that's a victory already. Now, it's the party's goal to make sure Christie's paralysis lasts. The basic way to do that is through long-running investigations. New Jersey Democrats have already used their control of the state legislature to set up a structure for those probes. The situation is filled with danger because some of Christie's closest former associates -- the ones who know what happened in the bridge affair, as well as all sorts of other matters -- are under subpoena.
Abandoned by the governor and testifying under oath, it's possible they could give investigators damaging material that extends beyond last year's traffic jam. Christie, a former U.S. attorney, well knows that investigations can take unexpected turns once people have a motive to talk. And in this case, Democratic strategists are rooting for as wide a probe as possible.
"When [investigators] start giving immunity, that's when we're going to know," says a Democratic strategist. On Monday, both Democratic sources were buzzing about word that David Wildstein, the Christie appointee to the Port Authority who was on the receiving end of the "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" email, is offering revelations in exchange for immunity. For Democrats, that's happy talk.
Of course, they don't know what Wildstein and others will say. The only certainty is that it will keep the scandal going for quite a while.
Like the public, Democrats are unsure whether Christie is telling the truth when he says he knew nothing about the lane closings. On one hand, no evidence has emerged that Christie is lying. On the other, they find it hard to believe the governor didn't know what his close aides were doing. But the beauty of the situation for Democrats is that they believe they'll win no matter what the truth is.
If evidence emerges to prove Christie is lying, he's dead. But if no such evidence comes out, Democrats believe the bridge scandal itself — plus any other issues that might emerge as a result of all that testifying and investigating — could be enough to permanently damage the governor.
Right now, the biggest problem some Democrats see is their own party's zeal — amplified by some cheerleaders in the press — to bring Christie down.
"Democrats run a serious risk of undermining their credibility by making accusations when they are supposed to be investigating," says the party official. "I think Democrats should leave it alone, and leave it up to the legislature and the investigation," agrees the strategist. "But they won't."
Part of the problem, as these Democrats see it, is over-enthusiasm on their side of the political noise machine. "MSNBC's ratings are way up," says the strategist, "which is like a clarion call to the Right that this is a partisan witch hunt and there's nothing there." As they see it, some self-control would go a long way for Democrats.
In any event, Democrats know things are moving their way, at least for the moment. In the early days of the bridge affair, some Republicans took comfort in polls showing Christie undamaged by the controversy. But public opinion takes a long time to change; Democrats see a long, slow slide in the governor's ratings.
To make that happen, investigators don't have to prove in any court that Christie committed any crime. All they have to do is create an impression in the minds of independent voters — the ones to whom Christie most appeals — that the governor is somehow damaged goods. If such a voter, in 2016, says of Christie, "I like him, but didn't he do something wrong? I remember he got in some sort of trouble" — that will be a victory for Democrats.
Some Republicans might hope Christie has weathered the worst of the scandal. But for Democrats, it's just beginning.