WASHINGTON — There is something inherently absurd about a political scandal resulting from an event that could also have been caused by a stray deer and a truck filled with watermelons. Instead, the closing of two access lanes to the George Washington Bridge last fall was the result of stupidity and swagger in close proximity to one of the GOP’s most promising presidential prospects.
Predictably, the scandal has unleashed a billiard table full of careening calculations. Democrats engage in premature hyperventilation because they fear that Gov. Chris Christie is an electable moderate conservative. Tea party conservatives do the same — for exactly the same reason. The media show their normal heightened enthusiasm for scandals involving public officials whose names end with a capital “R.” Republicans show their normal backlash sympathy for the object of a press frenzy.
Judged purely as a matter of politics, Christie has done well. Assuming his vehement denial of all involvement is accurate — the alternative is the end of his credibility and his career — Christie’s news conference was a model of crisis management. He accepted responsibility without admitting culpability. He apologized while maintaining he was a victim. I can’t recall a political figure who has done the scandal drill — mistakes were made, heads will roll — any better.
In the pre-primary primary, this is actually a qualification. Presidential candidates — who are often human beings — have been known to face draft-record controversies, bimbo eruptions, early DUI revelations, drug-use allegations, questions about discreditable pastoral associations and the like. The successful ones share Christie’s talent for crisis containment.
And the timing of this particular scandal is strangely good for Christie. A decisive re-election is just behind him. The primary season is years ahead. Political memories are short.
So — assuming the traffic cone caper was an isolated, rogue operation — that is that. But not quite that.
It is a fair assumption that a politician’s closest advisers become the core of a presidential campaign and may eventually hold key positions in government. That, at least, is the hope of everyone involved. The character of a presidential campaign, or of a White House staff, is actually determined by the dynamics of a small group. Often five or six people set the tone — amplifying a leader’s virtues or his (or her) less desirable traits.
In this case, some of the closest advisers to the New Jersey governor have been implicated in an act of nearly irrational vindictiveness and what Christie calls “abject stupidity.” It was the abuse of power to punish random people on a roadway who would (if the scheme worked properly) never know the reason. This was the reduction of citizens to ants on a log. It is the political philosophy of a malicious child with a magnifying glass.
It is honestly hard to imagine that such political operatives would have been capable enough to carry Christie to the presidency. But such a thought experiment is sobering. The problem is that stupidity is scalable. Transposed to the White House, such attitudes and tactics might have been Nixonian. Some in Christie’s circle of trust were not worthy of trust. Though he asserts, “I am not a bully,” he apparently employed some bullies.
This is the reason that the bridge scandal is more than a test of crisis management; it is now a test of whether Christie can build a political team worthy of his presidential ambitions (assuming, I think safely, that he has them). Loyalty is an important virtue in a politician’s closest staff — and one that Christie obviously values highly. But it is not sufficient. The bridge lane closings and cover-up did not result from staffers with insufficient loyalty to Christie but from staffers with insufficient regard for the public interest. This is where a deficit of trust now exists.
Christie remains a Republican front-runner for good reasons. He is tough, candid, pragmatic, persistent and unafraid of vested political interests. He has shown a rare ability to explain the need for pension and benefit reform in the Garden State — a skill transferrable to national fiscal challenges. His decisive re-election was earned — and promising as the basis for a national Republican coalition that includes more of the political center.
But many Republicans are now closely watching Christie’s first reaction to serious adversity. Does it make team Christie more combative and insular? Or is it taken as a painful but helpful lesson — producing a presidential campaign in which crackpot schemes of political vengeance are unthinkable?
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.