Sunday, January 12, 2014

NJ Governor Chris Christie: A "Not Ready For Prime Time" Politician?

Chris Christie, picture courtesy

By now, everyone has heard of the political scandal in New Jersey -

Gubernatorial appointees there ordered the closure of two of the three lanes leading to the George Washington bridge. heading into Manhattan from New Jersey, creating a traffic jam that crippled Fort Lee, NJ for four days in September 2013.

When questions first arose, asked by, and spurred by, reports in the local newspaper, the Bergen County Record, the initial story was that it was part of a "traffic study".

That story didn't have a lot of credibility when no one involved could or would present actual verifiable evidence of the existence of such a study.

Then speculation grew, positing that the closure was not about a "study" but instead about a simple political vendetta.  The speculation was that the real object of the closure was to hurt the mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich.

Sokolich, a Democrat, has refused to endorse Christie, a Republican, during Christie's recent reelection campaign (which Christie handily won, despite not having Sokolich's endorsement).

That seemed to be too petty, even for someone with the bullying reputation of Christie, so speculation continued, focusing on the possibility that the retribution was directed at some legislative Democrats representing northern NJ.  They blocked a judicial appointment of Christie in response to Christie's removal of another judge based on partisan considerations, not merit.

Either way, while the Christie administration's vendetta (if, indeed, that's what it was) was aimed at specific political rivals, the impact of the vendetta fell upon the tens of thousands of people living in and around, and traveling near, Fort Lee.

This scandal has been growing, to the point that there are legislative hearings looking into it (with at least one former Christie appointee availing himself of his Constitutional protections against self-incrimination and refusing to answer questions) and talk of a federal investigation (using public resources for personal political gain is a crime).

On Thursday, Christie held a marathon press conference where he:
  • Apologized.
  • Claimed he knew nothing of the events until the newspapers reported on them.
  • Blamed his staff, some of whom are/were long-term allies, saying that they had lied to him.  For years.
  • Announced the firing of a couple of scapegoats.
  • Claimed ignorance of the events until they became public knowledge.
  • Apologized some more.
  • Claimed some more ignorance.

It seems obvious that more evidence will come to light in this matter, so some of this may change in the coming weeks, but there are a couple of main likelihoods here.

Neither of which bode well for Christie's future.

One, Christie could be telling the truth (or something that's close to it), in which case he has no oversight of the activities of his closest staffers.  Meaning that as a president, he would be most like a blustery version of George W. Bush.

Two, Christie could have approved the lane closures.  Whether or not that approval was "direct" or of the "wink and a nod" variety, whether or not the intended target was the mayor of Fort Lee, legislative Democrats, or some as-yet unknown object of Christie's ire, impact of the lane closures fell upon thousands of people who had no part in New Jersey's political knife fights.

Now, I'm not an insider with the investigation, so this is little more than speculation on my part, but given the months of stonewalling while hoping this would go away followed by the disavowal and scapegoating when it didn't, this seems most like a political vendetta run by the modern equivalent of The Three Stooges.

Vendettas and "payback" (both positive and negative) are as much a part of politics as meetings and speechifying.

That's not limited to American-style politics, or even to governmental organizations, and human nature being what it is, it probably isn't going to change any time soon.

However as much a part of the fabric of politics vendettas may be, and however much people have accepted them as an inevitable part of that reality, there's a limit to that acceptance.

And harming thousands of people because one or few others may have ticked you off is well outside of that limit.

No matter how this situation ultimately works out, it shows that Christie is not ready for higher office.

Either he is a completely "hands-off" executive with an out-of-control staff, or he is the supremely petty bully that his reputation says he is.

Either way, he's not suited for the highest office in the country.

Having said all of the above, his presidential candidacy isn't toast.

Primary and caucus ballots won't be cast for another two years.

Two years is an eternity in modern politics.  He'll have time to clean up his image, plus most or all of the other candidates will have their own travails that will impact their viability as candidates.

I don't think he'll be able to fix this, spite and arrogance are too much a part of his persona, but I've been wrong about such things before.

Grab your popcorn and settle in; this mess is only the opening act in the 2016 stage show.

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