The Trouble in Trenton

For the politician formerly known as the Republican Party’s presidential front-runner, the hits keep coming: hits to his credibility, hits to his governing style, hits to his reputation.

And that’s how it’s going to be in the months to come.

Chris Christie’s fall from grace is as dramatic as any in modern American politics. And there surely is something Shakespearean about the latest plot twist: A onetime friend, treated with contempt and disrespect by the very man whose interests he protected, goes public with a dangerous and perhaps even politically lethal accusation. The governor responds with even more contempt, dragging up stories from a high school social studies class nearly four decades ago.

That, in a nutshell, is what took place over Super Bowl weekend when David Wildstein (who was either a high school friend of Mr. Christie or a mere acquaintance, depending on whose story you believe) charged that the governor may have known about the infamous lane closings near the George Washington Bridge as they were being implemented. Meanwhile, yet another staff member, the governor’s director of intergovernmental relations, has resigned, adding to the career body count since the scandal broke.

Up next: a new round of hearings, potentially more explosive revelations and continued scrutiny of the Christie administration’s handling of Superstorm Sandy relief funds.

Never in the history of second terms has a lame duck looked so lame so quickly on such a large stage. In fact, it is fair to wonder how in the world Mr. Christie proposes to govern for the next four years, because this is no mere distraction. This is a full-blown, existential threat to his office. Forget the damage done to his chances of becoming president. If the evidence shows that he lied about anything relating to Bridgegate, he’ll very likely be dispatched to private life in a New Jersey minute.

Of course, it is entirely possible that he is telling the truth, or a reasonable facsimile of it, and the scandal may devolve into an unverifiable tale of two stories. Actually, that may be Mr. Christie’s best-case scenario. But even if he survives, what of the people he has sworn to serve? What of his fellow New Jerseyans?

They certainly deserve a chief executive who is more interested in lowering the state’s horrific tax burden than he is in saving his own skin. But then again, Mr. Christie may be better suited to the latter task than the former. For all of the hype and hoopla that accompanied his first term, Mr. Christie has been, for the most part, a politics-as-usual governor playing the role of self-righteous reformer.

The New York Times noted last fall that Mr. Christie has embraced the sort of budgetary gimmicks, like one-shot revenue enhancers, that he criticized during his successful campaign against Jon Corzine in 2009. The business community regards New Jersey as the second least friendly state (trailing only New York), based on tax policy and other issues. The state’s unemployment rate of 7.3 percent is higher than the national average of 6.7 percent.

In other words, Mr. Christie didn’t exactly build an impressive record of achievement during his first term, when he had lots of political capital. Now that he is a staple of late-night comedy and home-crowd booing, he can hardly expect to be taken seriously in Trenton.

It’s hard to know where this is heading, but if Mr. Christie wants to put the people of his state first—ahead of his own ambitions and national profile—he will resign as head of the Republican Governors Conference and turn down, at least for the time being, out-of-state fund-raising trips. That would show that he understands the gravity of this moment.

Anything else makes him look like just another political careerist.