Bridgegate vs. Benghazi: What's more damaging for 2016?

Chris Christie and Hillary Rodham Clinton both faced bad headlines this week on issues that could affect their presidential prospects. But Governor Christie may have a longer road ahead. 

Julio Cortez/AP
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie arrives to deliver his State Of The State address at the Statehouse in Trenton, N.J. Jan 14.

Chris Christie and Hillary Rodham Clinton, both seen as top prospects for the 2016 presidential race, had bad weeks.

Governor Christie (R) of New Jersey saw 20 subpoenas go out, many to close associates, in connection with a special state legislative committee investigating the “Bridgegate” brouhaha.  

Former Secretary of State Clinton (D) saw the release of a critical Senate intelligence committee report on the deadly attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012.

The two fiascos are qualitatively different. A four-day traffic jam in Fort Lee, N.J. – apparently arranged by Christie allies as an act of political retribution – doesn’t compare to an assault on a US diplomatic mission that resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including the US ambassador to Libya.

But because they involve Christie and Clinton – both ranked No. 1 in polls by their parties’ voters for 2016 – these stories have a national political dimension that gives them added juice. Neither Christie nor Clinton has been revealed to be directly involved in the events, but both took place under their watch and both leaders have taken responsibility.

There, the stories diverge.

Bridgegate: What happened? The epic Fort Lee traffic jam of Sept. 9 to 12, 2013, was triggered when authorities ordered the closure of lanes on the George Washington Bridge for a “traffic study.” On Jan. 8, e-mails were made public showing a Christie deputy chief of staff saying, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” The recipient, a Christie appointee at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, replied, “Got it.” The alleged rationale for the jam was retribution against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, who declined to endorse Christie for reelection last fall. Last week, Christie fired the deputy chief of staff and dismissed his top political adviser. Christie says he had no knowledge or involvement himself.

Until last week, Christie denied his office had anything to do with the traffic jam, and responded to questions about it with sarcasm. Now he’s taking it seriously, and has hired a legal team to help him deal with multiple investigations – two in the state legislature, one in the US Senate, and another by the US Attorney’s office in New Jersey.

Benghazi: What happened? On the night of Sept. 11, 2012, several dozen gunmen attacked the US Consulate and a nearby CIA annex in Benghazi, killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Initially, the incident was blamed on spontaneous protests over an American film denigrating the Prophet Muhammad. Later, blame centered on an organized terrorist attack.

The bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report released Jan. 15 blamed the State Department for failing to heed intelligence warnings and requests for additional security by diplomatic staff. The report also said that Ambassador Stevens was himself partly to blame.

The only mention of Clinton came in an appendix signed by six Republican senators: “The final responsibility for security at diplomatic facilities lies with the former secretary of State, Hillary Clinton,” it said.

Critics charge the Clinton-run State Department stonewalled on the Benghazi story as it unfolded during the final weeks of the 2012 presidential campaign.

On the plus side for Clinton, the Senate report shot down some oft-repeated claims about the event: No one in the Obama administration ordered US military personnel to “stand down” rather than rescue those under attack. And National Security Adviser Susan Rice did not deliberately mislead the public when she asserted on television days after the attack that it was spurred by a protest at the consulate. That came from intelligence analysts who spoke without adequate information, the report said.

Cost to Christie: The New Jersey governor’s image has taken a hit, but not a politically fatal one. His job approval rating in New Jersey is still above water – 55 percent – in the latest Quinnipiac poll, but down from 68 percent approval in July.

Among American voters, far more see Christie as a strong leader than as a bully, according to a new NBC News/Marist poll. But he has lost ground in a head-to-head matchup against Clinton, now trailing her by 13 points, the poll found. Christie has also lost ground among Democrats, which hurts his argument that he can draw voters from across the aisle.

Cost to Clinton: Since November 2012, Clinton’s favorability rating has been in steady decline, from nearly 60 percent to just below 50 percent. That is mainly because she is no longer secretary of State, a job that kept her out of the political fray for four years, says Mark Blumenthal, senior polling editor of Huffington Post. For her to be well above 50 percent, she would need a lot of non-Democrats to like her.

What about Benghazi? “Clearly, that’s been part of the story,” Mr. Blumenthal says. “I can’t say it’s part of the decline, but my interpretation is she’s seen more as partisan and a potential presidential candidate, and not an above-partisanship secretary of State.”

Bottom line: Both Christie and Clinton have faced fierce criticism over the respective incidents. But the aftermath of Benghazi is much further along than it is on Bridgegate. Benghazi has been investigated by multiple entities – an independent Accountability Review Board (ARB), in addition to House and Senate committees.

Critics question the independence and integrity of the ARB, saying that only mid-level State Department officials have born the blame, not higher-ups. On the political right, charges that Clinton is slippery and evasive are rampant. But chances are, those who fixate on Clinton over Benghazi were never going to vote for her in the first place. And so it’s not clear, lacking any further evidence that she mishandled the episode or lied about key facts, that it will hurt her any more than it may have already.

For Christie, the journey has just begun on Bridgegate. If nothing comes out proving that he lied, he may be able to recover and run for president. But even still, he faces questions about the culture of his leadership – one in which top aides thought a manufactured traffic jam was a good idea. His ignorance of the scheme also raises questions about his reputation as a hands-on leader.

Republicans are holding their breath to see if Christie can survive as a national political figure. Among Democrats, there are no such questions about Clinton. She crushes the competition in polls for the Democratic nomination.

If she’s the nominee, that’s when Benghazi is likely to roar back. Watch for clips of her heated testimony in Congress in January 2013 to come back as Republican attack ads.

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