President Chris Christie? A Laughable Idea Even Before the Bridge Flap

FORT LEE, NJ - JANUARY 09: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie enters the Borough Hall in Fort Lee to apologize to Mayor Mark Sokolich on January 9, 2014 in Fort Lee, New Jersey. According to reports Christie's Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly is accused of giving a signal to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge, allegedly as punishment for the Fort Lee, New Jersey mayor not endorsing the Governor during the election.
National Journal
Add to Briefcase
Charlie Cook
Jan. 13, 2014, 2:34 p.m.

The course is pre­dict­able. An elec­ted of­fi­cial or a staffer does something that is ter­ribly wrong, un­eth­ic­al, and per­haps even mean-spir­ited. The news me­dia goes in­to hy­per­drive, a le­gis­lat­ive com­mit­tee cranks up an in­vest­ig­a­tion and is­sues sub­poen­as, politi­cians from the oth­er party at­tack, and those from the miscre­ant’s party dis­tance them­selves as quickly as pos­sible. The elec­ted of­fi­cial is ex­cor­i­ated from every dir­ec­tion, and then talk turns to pro­sec­u­tion, im­peach­ment, or — bet­ter yet — both. Last week­end, in con­nec­tion with New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie and either “Bridge-gate” or “Jam-gate” (take your pick), we have star­ted hear­ing the “P” and “I” words.

There is no ques­tion that clos­ing down three lanes of the George Wash­ing­ton Bridge simply to pun­ish the Demo­crat­ic may­or and (largely Demo­crat­ic) pop­u­la­tion of Fort Lee, N.J., was rep­re­hens­ible and in­ex­cus­able. Two staffers were fired, and their pub­lic-ser­vice ca­reers were pre­sum­ably ruined. The tra­ject­ory of Christie’s met­eor­ic polit­ic­al ca­reer has cer­tainly been altered — per­haps sig­ni­fic­antly. All of this is totally ap­pro­pri­ate. It wouldn’t be sur­pris­ing if Christie didn’t know about the lane clos­ures in ad­vance. However, even if we give Christie the be­ne­fit of that doubt, he ob­vi­ously cre­ated an en­vir­on­ment with­in his of­fice and ad­min­is­tra­tion that left the im­pres­sion that such be­ha­vi­or was ac­cept­able, even de­sir­able.

Was this ac­tion im­peach­able? Should Christie be pro­sec­uted? With the myri­ad prob­lems fa­cing New Jer­sey (and every oth­er state, for that mat­ter), is get­ting a last pound of flesh from Christie really the best use of state le­gis­lat­ors’ time and re­sources? Is the level of crime, wheth­er of the vi­ol­ent or white-col­lar nature, so low and in­sig­ni­fic­ant that scan­dals like this are what state or fed­er­al pro­sec­utors should be fo­cused on — as op­posed to murder, rape, may­hem, or fraud? Really?

One of the (many) things wrong with polit­ics today is that we at­tempt to crim­in­al­ize poor polit­ic­al be­ha­vi­or and, if giv­en half a reas­on, im­peach an elec­ted of­fi­cial, even if he or she is term-lim­ited. I am sure that some cre­at­ive law­yer can come up with some pro­sec­ut­able ac­tion taken by Christie or his ad­min­is­tra­tion, but is that really ap­pro­pri­ate here? Isn’t this just an­oth­er mani­fest­a­tion of the scorched-earth nature of Amer­ic­an polit­ics today? If you have an op­pon­ent on the ropes, don’t just knock them out and win the fight; go in for the kill, de­sec­rate the body if you get a chance. Don’t hold back! Take the op­por­tun­ity to get re­tri­bu­tion for any­thing that per­son may have ever done to wrong you.

Hav­ing said that, I also have a prob­lem with the re­cent story line: “The front-run­ner for the 2016 Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion is hit with a scan­dal.” Christie, the front-run­ner? Again — really? Christie in­deed sat at the top of some of the polls that lay out a long laun­dry list of every ima­gin­able con­tender (as well as some who are harder to ima­gine), but does that make him the front-run­ner? I think not.

Think for a mo­ment who makes up the Re­pub­lic­an Party, and most spe­cific­ally the part of the GOP base that dom­in­ates the pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion pro­cess. Think about the people they ser­i­ously con­sidered for their party’s pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion last time around. Think Michele Bach­mann, Her­man Cain, Rick San­tor­um, Rick Perry, and Newt Gin­grich. Now, quickly, think Christie. Now think Ses­ame Street: “One of these things is not like the oth­ers; one of these things just doesn’t be­long.” It’s laugh­able that the party that has pre­vi­ously ser­i­ously con­sidered some fairly in­con­ceiv­able can­did­ates as worthy of the GOP nom­in­a­tion would sud­denly re­verse course and head over to a cen­ter-right can­did­ate such as Christie.

To be sure, parties some­times re­verse course, but not that eas­ily. After the de­bacle of the 1964 elec­tion, when Lyn­don John­son decim­ated Barry Gold­wa­ter 61 per­cent to 38 per­cent, Re­pub­lic­ans did make a move from hard right to cen­ter. Four years later, the GOP nom­in­ated Richard Nix­on, who went on to win the pres­id­ency; but it took hit­ting rock bot­tom in 1964 to trig­ger that shift with­in the party. Eight years later, Nix­on des­troyed George McGov­ern by ex­actly the same per­cent­ages, caus­ing Demo­crats to move to­ward the cen­ter four years later, nom­in­at­ing a vic­tori­ous Jimmy Carter. Again, it was a wipeout that en­abled each party to tell its base to shut up and sit down, that it was time to win a gen­er­al elec­tion.

In a slightly dif­fer­ent vari­ation on the same theme, after Demo­crats lost the pres­id­ency in three con­sec­ut­ive elec­tions — 1980, 1984, and 1988 — and five out of six times, they moved to the cen­ter in 1992, nom­in­at­ing Bill Clin­ton. This move­ment shif­ted the party’s for­tunes, and the Demo­crats won two elec­tions in a row — along with the pop­u­lar vote in three con­sec­ut­ive con­tests and, in fact, five of the next six. But that suc­cess­ful shift took los­ing five out of six elec­tions, in­clud­ing three in a row.

I don’t sense that “back to the draw­ing board” men­tal­ity in the Re­pub­lic­an Party today, at least not strongly enough to make such a dra­mat­ic shift and nom­in­ate Christie or a Christie-like can­did­ate. A cen­ter-right, as op­posed to right-right, can­did­ate would prob­ably have a very good chance of win­ning, but that would re­quire an at­ti­tu­din­al change that doesn’t seem to have happened yet, and doesn’t look likely, either.

So mark me down in the cat­egory of folks who feel that Chris Christie was not the front-run­ner but that this scan­dal makes his like­li­hood of win­ning the nom­in­a­tion even less likely than be­fore. However rep­re­hens­ible the ac­tions that his staff — or pos­sibly he and his staff — may have taken, the dam­age is done, and suf­fi­cient pun­ish­ment has already been in­flic­ted.

×