If Christie Is Able to Emerge, Cockroach-Like, From The Current Scandal, What Happens Next?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

The 1987 film "Eat the Rich" involved a loutish Conservative British Home Secretary who was seemingly politically indestructible.  His low-class populist "charm" involved being a brawler (literally) and the opposite of the effete types who dominated the British political scene.  When he became a plausible threat to become Prime Minister, his enemies tried to bring him down through various dirty tricks.  Setting him up to be caught with prostitutes, however, only made him more popular with regular people.  He seemed incapable of shame, and his supporters liked him no matter what negatives they learned about him.

When the news broke earlier this week about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's suddenly white-hot scandal regarding the deliberate infliction of traffic hell on the borough of Fort Lee, I tried to imagine how Christie might somehow survive the scandal.  The bombshell emails, after all, had shown that the plot was hatched out of his office, and he was left with two unappetizing choices: admit that he knew about the plot, or claim that he is so out of touch that his top advisers could commit a week-long act of retribution without his knowledge.  As an added difficulty, the "I know nothing" strategy would necessarily require an explanation of why he continued to know nothing, even months after it had become obvious that there was something that he ought to have known.  "Are you a liar or a fool?" seemed to be the question that Christie would be forced to answer, in different forms, over and over again.

I honestly thought that there was a good chance that Christie would go the "Eat the Rich" route, and simply embrace the strategy of somehow turning facts that would embarrass a person who possesses the ability to feel shame into badges of honor.  "Did I order the hit?  You're damn right I did, and that's how I get things done.  If the American people want someone who takes 'no' for an answer, then I'm not their guy.  But if they want someone who knocks heads together, Christie in '16!!"

This possibility was hardly fanciful.  Christie's entire image has been built around being what the mythical Everyman supposedly wants in a politician: a no-nonsense guy who knows how to get results.  Christie's most notable personality characteristic has been his obvious glee in going after people who cross him.  He could, one imagines, have tried to claim virtue in a plan to create a traffic mess that would snap other Democrats (and Republicans) into line.  Sure, it was risky, he might say, but the message was sent, and all's well that ends well.  Get over it!

It says good things about New Jersey and America, therefore, that even Chris Christie did not think that he could bluster his way through this scandal.  His self-pitying two-hour press conference yesterday was a sight to behold.  Everything that he said focused on how his people had done bad things to him.  He certainly left plenty of questions unanswered, and nearly every editorialist and commentator whom I have read over the past 24 hours has been unimpressed with Christie's evasions.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the post-press conference reality was raised on Rachel Maddow's show last night.  Maddow pointed out that Christie spent much of his time at his press conference explaining why the prevailing theory -- that the Christie team was punishing the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for refusing to endorse the governor's reelection -- was not true and, in fact, could not be true.  By Christie's telling of the story, his team tried and failed to get the endorsements of hundreds of NJ Democrats (and only succeeded with about 60 others), and he pointed out that even the Fort Lee mayor had said that none of Christie's staffers had asked him for an endorsement.  As Christie put it, the mayor was "not on my radar screen."

As Maddow pointed out, however, that story makes matters potentially worse for Christie.  If the obvious explanation for this dangerous and stupid act of political retribution was not payback for a non-endorsement, then why did Christie's people do it?  Maddow offered one possible explanation (the leader of the state's Senate Democrats also represents Fort Lee, and the Governor was angry with her), which might or might not turn out to be true.  Even if Maddow's story might feel a bit conspiratorial, however, whose fault is that?  Christie has shot down the only known explanation, but he has not offered an alternative explanation, and he has admitted that he did not bother to ask his now-fired or -resigned former staffers to explain themselves.

Last Thursday, before this story broke as a matter of major national news (due to the bombshell emails that tied the story to Christie's office), I wrote a post here on Dorf on Law in which I used the Fort Lee story as one of many Christie-related anecdotes that added up to the classic picture of a thin-skinned bully.  (In his press conference yesterday, Christie revealingly insisted: "I am who I am, but I am not a bully.")  Although Christie has always been an extreme example, I noted that politicians are constantly engaged in efforts to "make people pay" while at the same time understanding that working with some of those same people will be the key to future success.

I noted, for example, that the Obama people have apparently tried, with some success, to silence dissent by people on the left by making it clear that the White House will not look kindly on anything that sounds like criticism.  What makes this different from Christie's Fort Lee debacle, of course, is that Christie's people used innocent citizens as pawns in their scheme, endangering the public in the process.  Even so, the point is that there is nothing categorically unusual about politicians who have thin skins and long memories.

The public, on the other hand, often has a very short memory.  Many people wonder whether Christie can survive this scandal.  Although his governorship is currently not at risk (as far as we know), certainly his presidential ambitions are on the line.  Let us imagine, however, that Christie limps out of this situation with his reputation tarnished, but he is able to convince himself that a run in the 2016 Republican primaries is worth the effort.  He still faces two problems.

First, the nature of his transgression (or, at least, the transgressions that happened right under his nose) is not a liberal/conservative matter.  If anything, it is something that conservatives can more easily attack, because it can be spun as "governmental abuse of the public."  This means that Christie's Republican opponents will savage him for this.  So far, the major attacks on Christie have come from Democrats, with Republicans lying low.  That will change.

Second, as I noted in my post last Thursday, Christie most closely resembles Rudolph Giuliani in his public persona.  Blunt-talking bullies, each with a moment of true leadership under his belt (Giuliani after 9/11, Christie after Hurricane Sandy), both imagine that the rest of the country will embrace their rude styles.

The problem is that Christie really is a bully.  Like Giuliani, he revels in humiliating people, especially weak people.  (Both men remind me of football and basketball coaches who turn press conferences into opportunities to insult and belittle reporters.)  When they try to turn off their negative sides, they both come across as diminished.  One can almost see them thinking, "I've lost my manhood if I can't yell and snarl at people."

Recall that when Giuliani -- who was initially thought to be a front-runner for the 2008 Republican Presidential nomination -- actually tried to campaign, his numbers plummeted.  Indeed, pundits noted that the more time Giuliani spent in any given state, the lower his numbers fell.  His campaign slogan should have been: "Don't get to know me!"  And he did not even have a scandal hanging over his head.

Therefore, even if Christie is somehow able to turn yesterday's uncharacteristically muted performance into a second act, it is hard to see how he finds a path to national political success.  My guess, for what it is worth, is that further revelations in this story will derail him long before that.  If not, however, one has to think that his likely opponents are feeling a lot more confident these days.