How Chris Christie Can Save His Career

Transparency and accountability would transcend politics of today.

NRCC keynoter: N.J. Gov. Chris Christie
National Journal
Ron Fournier
Jan. 9, 2014, 3:47 a.m.

Since 1992, when Bill Clin­ton mod­er­ated the Demo­crat­ic Party’s im­age by cri­ti­ciz­ing a hip-hop artist for her ra­cially in­cen­di­ary com­ments, politi­cians have searched for their “Sis­ter Soul­jah mo­ment” ““ when a can­did­ate takes what ap­pears to be a brave stand against ex­tremes in their party.

In 2000, George W. Bush ca­ri­ca­tur­ized con­ser­vat­ive jur­ist Robert Bork in an at­tempt to ap­pear more com­pas­sion­ate than the GOP brand.  That same year, Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate John Mc­Cain de­mon­ized the far right’s “agents of in­tol­er­ance.” Eight years later, Sen. Barack Obama dis­tanced him­self from his own pas­tor, call­ing Jeremi­ah Wright’s ra­cially charged com­ments “a bunch of rants that aren’t groun­ded in the truth.”

The sor­did George Wash­ing­ton Bridge scan­dal of­fers Chris Christie two choices: Con­tin­ue to deny, de­flect and dis­semble in a man­ner that is so com­mon in the polit­ics of today, and most re­cently ex­hib­ited by Pres­id­ent Obama dur­ing a spate of con­tro­ver­sies in 2013; or “¦ pull a Su­per Sis­ter Soul­jah.

A Su­per Sis­ter Soul­jah goes bey­ond dis­tan­cing one’s self from ex­tremes with­in your party. It is when a can­did­ate to take what ap­pears to be a brave stand against polit­ics as prac­ticed by both parties. It is what I had in mind Wed­nes­day with this tweet:

Christie needs to come clean about his in­volve­ment in the bridge-lane clos­ures, if any, and provide a more be­liev­able ex­plan­a­tion of when he learned about the activ­ity. In­stead of hid­ing be­hind spokes­men, law­yers, press re­leases and smug as­ser­tions, the New Jer­sey gov­ernor needs to apo­lo­gize, ac­cept re­spons­ib­il­ity, and re­lease every doc­u­ment and elec­tron­ic com­mu­nic­a­tion about the clos­ures. He should call for an in­de­pend­ent in­vest­ig­a­tion and or­der his ad­visers to com­ply.

Fi­nally, he should do as I urged Obama to do last year: Clean house. Fire any­body who knew or should have known about the clos­ures and re­place them with people who will change the cul­ture of his of­fice. These charges are stick­ing to Christie be­cause they fit so neatly in­to his of­fice’s repu­ta­tion for bul­ly­ing and ar­rog­ance. “He and his staff op­er­ate as di­vas,” con­ser­vat­ive blog­ger Er­ick Er­ick­son wrote in a post titled, “The Polit­ics of A-Holes.”

The chal­lenge for Christie is over­com­ing the dam­age to his repu­ta­tion caused by his of­fice’s role in shut­ting down some ac­cess lanes to the George Wash­ing­ton Bridge, an act of polit­ic­al re­tri­bu­tion that en­dangered lives. The scan­dal is an easy-to-un­der­stand an­ti­thes­is to Christie’s care­fully cul­tiv­ated im­age of a lead­er cap­able of tran­scend­ing petty polit­ics to serve the pub­lic good. Here’s how New Jer­sey Star-Ledger ed­it­or­i­al team as­sessed the situ­ation:

Un­til yes­ter­day, the of­fi­cial line from Christie’s lieu­ten­ants at the Port Au­thor­ity has been that this was all part of some secret “traffic study”; that they were simply curi­ous to see what sort of may­hem would en­sue if two of Fort Lee’s three ac­cess lanes to the George Wash­ing­ton Bridge were cut off, sud­denly and un­an­nounced.

That’s clearly a bogus story. But was the gov­ernor ly­ing, too?

Christie ori­gin­ally said that after check­ing with his staff, he de­term­ined that no one from his of­fice was in­volved in these lane clos­ings. He scoffed at the very idea that it was polit­ic­al re­tri­bu­tion against the Fort Lee may­or for re­fus­ing to en­dorse Christie’s re-elec­tion, and joked that he had moved the traffic cones him­self.

His at­tempts to laugh this off now ap­pear to be dis­hon­est, though we can’t yet be sure that he per­son­ally knew about the do­ings of one of his top aides. Either way, though, Christie bears re­spons­ib­il­ity. If it turns out he did know, he is ob­vi­ously ly­ing and un­fit for of­fice — let alone a 2016 pres­id­en­tial run.

And even if he did not, his of­fi­cials are li­ars. If Christie can’t con­trol them, how can we trust him as a po­ten­tial fu­ture lead­er of our coun­try?

Those are fair ques­tions that go right to the is­sue of lead­er­ship, which John Dick­er­son of CBS News and Slate cov­ers re­li­giously. He wrote of Christie:

This is a polit­ic­al prob­lem for Christie, but more im­port­antly, it’s a lead­er­ship test. Since the gov­ernor ar­rived on the na­tion­al stage, he has giv­en vari­ous ad hoc sem­inars on lead­er­ship and the qual­it­ies re­quired for great­ness. He talks a great deal about the top­ic and of­fers him­self as an ex­pert. Be­fore he be­came part­ners with Barack Obama in re­spond­ing to Hur­ricane Sandy, he gave a very astrin­gent cri­tique of the pres­id­ent’s short­com­ing. Re­cently Christie ad­vised the pres­id­ent to apo­lo­gize for his prom­ise that if people wanted to keep their in­sur­ance they would be al­lowed to. “When you make a mis­take, you should own up to it and apo­lo­gize for it,” he said.

Will Christie do that here? Christie now faces prob­lems that echo ones this pres­id­ent has faced, most re­cently in the rol­lout of the Af­ford­able Care Act: Does he apo­lo­gize, and how fully? Does he take re­spons­ib­il­ity for the ac­tions of his aides? Does he ad­mit mis­takes? Does he fire someone? Does he in­crease his fam­ous bluster or does he step back from it? Christie is very good at giv­ing ad­vice on these mat­ters. Now he can show rather than tell. 

If he’s ly­ing, his ca­reer is over. But if Christie truly was not in­volved, he can show some ac­count­ab­il­ity and trans­par­ency, which in this era of no-re­spons­ib­il­ity polit­ics, would be a Su­per Sis­ter Soul­jah mo­ment.

UP­DATE: Did Christie take this ad­vice at his news con­fer­ence? My score­card: “Christie Still Faces Crisis of Con­fid­ence”

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