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 go 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 Governor 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 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 frontrunner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination is hit with a scandal.” Christie, the frontrunner? 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 frontrunner? 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 frontrunner 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.