It’s too early to know for sure, but I’d be willing to bet that the third paragraph of Gov. Chris Christie eventual obituary will include the words “I am not a bully.” Those five words, like Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” may well end up defining Christie’s life on the American political stage.
There is a truism in politics that the worst wounds are those that are self inflicted. The next most damaging wounds are those that are not quickly recognized as potentially deadly and are allowed to grow and fester. Both types of political wounds are present in Gov. Christie’s George Washington Bridge scandal.
The tough and combative Governor of New Jersey stood before cameras last week and apparently did himself enough good in explaining away any personal involvement in “Bridgegate” that the bleeding has been stopped. Christie, however, is not out of political intensive care for lots of reasons. The political payback scandal that shut down portions of the world’s busiest bridge linking New Jersey and New York is the worst kind political scandal simply because it is so readily understandable to voters. Everyone has been caught in a traffic jam. No one expects a politician, or his staff, to actually engineer a traffic jam. This is far from over.
Christie has fired his deputy chief of staff and another top political aide, but the governor did not act until those moves were forced upon him by the release of documents that implicated his staff members in the effort to payback a small town Jersey mayor who had declined to endorse Christie’s recent re-election. Two other Christie appointees to the Port Authority, the agency that runs the George Washington Bridge, resigned some ago, but the governor flush from a resounding re-election win repeatedly failed to act to deal with the damaging political fallout. The result: a self-inflicted wound and a supremely damaging delay in responding.
Two observations about both good politics and good management based upon what I know about how a governor’s office operates, or should operate:
1) Being hands on is not a crime for a politician. It may be more work, require more hours in the day and it may even force more decisions to be made at the top, but for voters it should be a given that an elected official, particularly a governor, attends to a million details. When you wall yourself off from the details you get burned. Even if you believe that Christie didn’t know about the chaos caused by the lane closures leading to the GW bridge the fact is that he should have known and certainly should not have been the last to know. According to press accounts Jersey commuters were complaining plenty about the traffic jams when they occurred last September.
The Fort Lee, New Jersey police chief told a columnist for the Bergen Record on September 12 that during “four days of gridlock we’ve been asking the Port Authority what problem they’ve been trying to fix, and so far we haven’t gotten any answers.” Governors exist to get answers to such questions. Christie, with several very senior appointees serving at his behest on the Port Authority Board, could have solved the bridge closure with a single phone call. It stretches credibility to think the tough guy, no nonsense and self-described hands on governor wasn’t curious enough to ask someone “just what the hell is going on?”
It would be like Butch Otter in Idaho not following up on a very public issue with the Fish and Game Commission or John Kitzhaber in Oregon sitting around while Nike leaves town. Governors are paid to stay on top of problems.
The best your can say for Christie – the best – is that he was so consumed with running up the score in his November re-election that he didn’t read the morning papers in September. If that’s the best case then the governor really is guilty of gubernatorial malpractice. That the boss didn’t know or that his underlinings thought it appropriate that he not be informed is simply mismanagement – mismanagement at the top.
2) The other observation so far from “Bridgegate” is that the best you can say for Christie’s inner circle – the best you can say – is that he fostered or allowed to be created a culture where a senior staff member, the fired deputy chief of staff, could take it upon her own to play such silly and damaging political games. The Christie culture smacks of arrogance and, frankly, a small-minded pettiness that would not exist unless the tone had been set from the top. In this failure, too, the buck stops with the governor.
Chris Christie – and Barack Obama for that matter with his detached management style – should take many lessons from such political and management failures, but one lesson that should be seared into any politician’s ambition is the fact that it is the rare elected official who gets in trouble for acting too quickly. Christie, allegedly at the top of his craft and on the way to serious contention for the GOP nomination for president, gets a D-minus for not seeing problems and moving quickly to correct those problems.That is the best you can say about his scandal.
If it turns out that more traffic cones start to drop, or that Christie had knowledge he’s not fessed up to, or that he actually ordered or allowed the petty political payback to take place then all bets are off. Let the subpoenas issue and the investigations begin.
If it turns out that Christie’s marathon news conference was just an effort at immediate damage control and his story doesn’t hold up in the details then the Nixon analogy will have come full circle. Another absolute rule of political scandal is that the cover-up is always more damaging than the original sin. In that case “I am not a bully” will morph into “I am not a crook.”