As I wrote a few days ago, I was away over the weekend, taking advantage of a long school weekend to take my daughter to visit her grandparents (FYI posting may continue to be a little light for a while; I want to be able to start writing about what’s happening in Russia and Ukraine, but as I like to at least think that I know what I’m writing about before I write about it, I’m still in mostly-reading mode right now). My folks are kind of like the reverse-Fox demographic, in that there’s a pretty solid chance you’ll find MSNBC on at least one of their TVs at any given time of the day. I’d say this is a liberal thing, except they also usually have Morning Joe on, and I had the interesting experience of actually feeling myself get dumber one morning as I tried to watch that mess. At one point I’m pretty sure that one of the mouths actually asked Joe, and let me reiterate that “Joe” here refers to Joe Scarborough, former congressman, not some other person named Joe who might know something about anything, to compare the job market of today with the job market during the industrial revolution. At that point I think I may have blacked out.
Anyway, at some other point MSNBC was covering the Christie/GWB scandal, and my mom asked me if I thought that it wouldn’t have been better for Christie to just come clean up front about what he knew and how he was involved. I have no political background at all, so my opinion here is good for next to nothing, but I tried to put myself in the position of Christie’s political team and it seemed to me that I’d probably have advised him to do what he’s done, which is to jettison implicated subordinates, give the appearance of full disclosure, and try to ride out the storm. There are political scandals that are salacious and immediately understandable to the public, which usually involve some kind of sex or bribery and/or some obviously damning piece of evidence, and then there are scandals that don’t resonate as well, either because the scandal itself is something legalistic or complicated or because there’s a lack of clear evidence and so it becomes an “x said, y said” type of a thing. In the case of the former, it’s probably better to just come clean, because otherwise you become a punchline, the condition from which politicians have the hardest time recovering. But in the case of the latter, it’s possible to duck the charges, to stretch the story out long enough, that two things start to happen:
- Your core constituency (or the folks you need onside the most, like, say, conservative voters in a Republican presidential primary) start to circle the wagons around you and blame your accusers/the press for trying to destroy you
- Everybody else, at least everybody who doesn’t already love you or hate you, gets fed up with the indecisiveness of the story and stops paying attention, including the media (see, for example, our friends at Morning Joe)
This GWB thing seemed to me like the second case (though obviously if it leads to real legal jeopardy for Christie then that’s a different story); it’s a scandal about bridge lane closures and political payback, which is kind of salacious but it’s not OMG ILLICIT SEX and actually just plays into what most people already assume politicians do, and there was enough plausible deniability to get away with holding back until the media and public stopped caring. The later charges from the mayor of Hoboken, Dawn Zimmer, that Christie threatened to withhold Sandy recovery funds from Hoboken for political reasons, added some juice to the story, but Zimmer made for a particularly poor witness given all the changes in her story. So I figured he was probably doing the right thing politically, having that long press conference that looked like an attempt at complete transparency but was also a pretty well-managed attempt to advance a particular narrative, and then clamming up about everything. Heck, I thought, it’s possible that Christie did come clean, and that his press conference did totally disclose his role in this whole situation, and things were probably ambiguous enough to allow Christie to survive with his ambitions intact. At least, I thought all that before David Wildstein started making Christie out to be a liar. The word “liar” is a powerful word, and it makes people pay attention to whatever story is being told. It’s still not OMG ILLICIT SEX, but it will do as far as political scandals go, and the nature of Wildstein’s claims calls Christie’s whole defense into question. It’s entirely possible that Wildstein is lying, trying to peddle something to prosecutors that may not ultimately go anywhere, but it creates a “where there’s smoke” feeling about this story that’s hard for any politician to escape.
Christie’s response to Wildstein has been a pretty typical one, a list of character-assassinating talking points sent out by Christie’s office to discredit Wildstein, though it’s so ineptly put together that it’s fairly shocking. But it occurred to me as I was reading the email that my instincts about this scandal were wrong and that it really has done considerable damage to Christie’s ambitions regardless of how long it stretches on. I still think it’s the kind of maybe-scandal that most politicians would be well-served to drag out rather than confront head-on, but most politicians haven’t crafted a near-mythical persona (with considerable help from a fawning press) around the idea that they’re above politics-as-usual and hyper-competent. The longer this goes on, even if the public starts to lose interest in the particular details of the case, the harder it is for Christie to pivot back to what he wants his 2016 narrative to be: “I’m the guy who just gets stuff done, partisan politics be damned.” The details of the GWB case, while unproven, are very much partisan politics-as-usual (as is the way Christie has responded to it), and even Christie’s own narrative about the scandal, the story that he’s been betrayed by his most trusted aides, blows a big hole in the idea of his competence. It’s not even clear that die-hard conservatives will rally around Christie to defend him from the “liberal” media, given their feelings of betrayal regarding Christie’s actions during the 2012 campaign. Even his image as a blunt, straight-shooter feeds into the strong-arm aspects of this story and threatens to shade from “bluntness” to “bullying,” which is already an image that he’s had to fight against.
So now that I’ve thought about it, I’m still not sure I would have advised Christie to do anything differently than he’s done, or that there really was anything else he could have done. But the nature of this story is almost perfectly calibrated to pick apart the public persona of someone like Christie. A different politician, one whose appeal was not based on this sort of post-partisan, above-the-fray image, might have been able to ride out the storm until people lost interest. But for Chris Christie, everything he wants voters to believe about him is undermined by the details of this case, and I’m not sure how he comes back from it.