Yesterday's revelation of the Governor's Office was directly involved shutting down George Washington Bridge access lanes to Fort Lee, N.J., is not just another run-of-the-mill political problem for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
It could be fatal to Christie's presidential ambitions. There are four reasons to believe that the ham-handed attempt to punish Ft Lee's mayor by causing traffic gridlock in his city may make his presidential ambitions to sink faster than a rock in the Hudson River.
Reason #1: The episode turns his trademark no-nonsense forcefulness from a refreshing positive into self-serving bullying -- a disgusting negative.
In politics, every positive trait has its evil twin. Voters want leaders who are on their side, but they don't want demagogues that pander to their interests.
It's a good thing in politics to be passionately committed to strongly-held beliefs. It's not a good thing to be an uncompromising ideologue.
Voters want their leaders to be self confident and forceful. They don't want leaders to be arrogant bullies.
That's why in politics if you're trying to convince persuadable voters that they shouldn't support your opponent, it's often best to take on their strongest positive traits and morph them into their negative first cousins. You attack their strength by turning their into their negative incarnations.
One of the reasons why this approach often works is that people are already predisposed to believe that the politician in question is prone to the qualities and behaviors in question that could have either a positive or a negative side.
Once Christie sold the public on the notion that he is a no-nonsense, straight-talking guy who doesn't suffer fools lightly, tells it like it is and gets things done -- it's not hard to believe he is also the kind of a guy who will act like a bully to get what he wants.
And of course this episode conjures up all of the worst stereotypes about New Jersey politics that Christie already needed to overcome in places like Iowa and Wisconsin. "Bridgegate" and its colorful cast of characters could be a sequel to the current box office hit, American Hustle.
People in the Midwest and South like straight talk, but they also like "nice" and civil. Christie's brash "straight-talk" was going to wear thin pretty quickly outside the Northeast even before the "bridgegate." Now the negative side of his personal style will be the first thing they see.
Reason #2: "Bridgegate" will be the first impression that many ordinary voters get of Chris Christie.
Outside of New Jersey and the New York media market, most of the swing voters who will decide a general election -- and many Republican primary voters -- have only a vague knowledge of Christie. Normal people, after all, think about politics five minutes a week. The first priority of a political figure is to break through the clutter -- to get on the radar scope -- to get noticed.
But like your mother told you, you only have one chance to make a good first impression. This is a bad first impression.
Voters cast their ballots based on what they know. For example, if all you know is that you share the candidate's ethnic name, you are often more likely to support him -- since he's "like you." But if they learn more, the importance of the name begins to shrink.
"Bridgegate" is a big, interesting, symbolically powerful story that will break through with voters who know very little about Christie. For many voters, it will be their first real impression and he will come to be defined by it. Political communication is all about symbols. This will become a symbol for Christie -- a story that describes him for voters who don't know anything else about him.
"Oh yeah, he's they guy who caused a three-day traffic jam to punish a mayor that wouldn't support him, right? What a piece of work."
Reason #3: So much for the guy who could, as the New York Times said, "transcend partisan rancor and petty politics in the service of the public good."
You don't get much more partisan or much more petty than inconveniencing and threatening the public safety of thousands of ordinary citizens in order to punish a Democratic mayor who failed to endorse your re-election for governor. When one unidentified aide said he felt sorry for the children on school buses who were late to school because of the intentional traffic jam, Christi's friend and Port Authority official David Wildstein replied that they were the kids of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Buono's supporters. Yuck.
Reason #4: The momentum and inevitability of Christie's march to the GOP nomination has evaporated.
One of the big things Christie had going for him was the bandwagon. He seemed inevitable, so Republican donors, county chairmen and activists were signing on. No longer.
Of course part of that inevitability was built upon the premise that he could attract lots of persuadable voters and disaffected Democrats with his straight talking, non-partisan image. That is gone too. His attempts to revive that narrative will always be stalked by the specter of the bridge incident that proves it to be a work of fiction.
When he lost re-election many years ago, former Texas Agricultural Commissioner and now progressive radio talk show host and writer Jim Hightower said: "One day you're a peacock and the next day you're a feather duster."
Christie may not be a feather duster quite yet, but the odds have increased that his oversized presence in American politics will appear in history books as little more than a small footnote.