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.