Opinion: Is Gov. Christie Headed for a Political Comeback or Catastrophe?
Presidents Nixon and Clinton offer some very useful examples on how to manage through a crisis — and how not to
Most political scandals ultimately come down to a public relations war. Bridgegate — the uproar over closing access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee last September — is headed in the same direction.
A little history:
In 1998, when President Bill Clinton was caught in an Oval Office dalliance with a woman barely older than his daughter, he lied about it for months. His strategy was to convince the American people that his misbehavior was a personal matter between him and his wife and did not impact his ability to continue as president. He adopted a tough-it-out approach, gambling that while people would find his conduct distasteful, they’d eventually agree that it was a family issue and not sufficiently egregious to drive him from office.
Clinton rode out the storm, finished his second term, embarked on a lucrative after-office lecture circuit, and rehabbed himself into a revered party figure in great demand as a fundraiser and campaigner.
Twenty-six years earlier, President Richard Nixon spent more than two years trying to ride out the storm of Watergate with a public relations offensive that insisted he knew nothing about what a gang of rogue operatives working in his re-election campaign had done. His strategy ranged from the dismissive (Watergate was “a second rate burglary.”) to ridicule (He didn’t intend to “wallow in Watergate.”). None of it worked. Slightly more than two years later he resigned from office and — like Clinton — took up writing books and giving speeches.
Clinton’s affair with an intern was remarkably stupid and publicly embarrassing, but it did not measure up to Watergate with its repeated lawbreaking and obstruction of justice.
The common thread was the effort to convince the American people to look past each president’s conduct and forgive him for it. It worked for Clinton, whose party rallied to him; it didn’t for Nixon, whose most fervent supporters deserted him.
The Christie administration’s strategy for dealing with Bridgegate is similar: Ride out the storm, maintain political support, strive to bend the public debate toward other issues and areas of concern to taxpayers, discredit the legislative investigation as a politically drenched attempt to embarrass him, and — most crucial of all — continue to drive the narrative that he was unaware of the misconduct of his subordinates and that not a shred of evidence has been produced to disprove that.
The recent suggestion by Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick that the Republican members of the select investigating committee may resign en masse is the next logical step in furthering this strategy.
Bramnick claimed that he and his party colleagues were being ignored by the Democratic majority and that the committee’s work had deteriorated into a partisan campaign to besmirch Christie — and an expensive one at that. Republicans, he said, agreed to the committee’s creation and to serve on it in good faith but after two months of testimony and examination of documents, little progress had been made and it was time to cede control of the investigation to the U. S. Attorney.
Had it not been for the original Assembly Transportation Committee hearings, though, the scandal and the intimate involvement of top Christie staffers would not have been uncovered. Since then, the committee has been stymied, and even its strongest supporters will privately admit there’s been little of note revealed.
The committee’s effort to obtain emails from former Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly and Christie confidant Bill Stepien — two central figures in the scandal — was unsuccessful when a Superior Court Judge ruled the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination covered the requested documents. The committee’s failure to appeal the decision has produced speculation that the Democrats fear a higher court upholding the ruling would be devastating and encourage anyone else it wished to subpoena to assert the same Constitutional protection.
There has been a reluctance to offer immunity to prospective witnesses out of a concern that such a move could complicate and potentially undercut the inquiry underway by the U. S. Attorney’s office.
Even the documents demanded by the committee from Randy Mastro, head of the outside attorney group hired by the administration to determine what level of involvement existed in the executive office, turned out to be of little value.
Aside from some rather colorful email and personal exchanges among staffers, the documents, consisting of notes and memos rather than official interview transcripts, shed no light on the question of responsibility. While the Mastro report exonerated the governor and his staff, it was almost universally panned as one in which conclusions were reached first followed by an investigation to support them.
Unable to compel the production of documents while holding cartons of essentially worthless papers and memos, along with the legal complications inherent in granting immunity, leaves the committee with little to continue to attract media and public interest. Any witnesses it calls will most certainly follow the Kelly/Stepien precedent and refuse to testify.
In contrast, the Watergate scandal was kept alive for more than two years because many individuals — including a high-ranking official of the FBI — were willing to talk . . . and talk . . . and talk, leading to new and more sensational front page revelations on a regular basis. It was precisely the opposite of what’s occurring with respect to Bridgegate.
Also troubling for the committee was the comment by Senate President Steve Sweeney that, having lost its court challenge to Kelly and Stepien, the committee should consider disbanding in favor of the federal probe. While Sweeney quickly retreated publicly, there is no reason to believe he’s changed his mind or that, in private, he’s not urging his view on others in his party caucus.
The committee cochairs have said more subpoenas will be issued in a few weeks, possibly ones drawn more narrowly as the court suggested to avoid a “fishing expedition” defense. Documents may or may not be revealing, but in-person testimony under oath and without immunity is out of the question.
In the meantime, the governor is bounding around the state, conducting town hall meetings where he plays to packed houses and the media, cutting ribbons, delivering speeches, raising money, and doing what he clearly relishes — berating Democrats for repeatedly failing to act on property tax relief.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, in an unfathomable public relations blunder, refused to move on legislation to continue a two percent cap on salary arbitration awards to police and firefighters, allowing the law to expire, and handing Christie a club to bludgeon legislative Democrats while surrounded by a few hundred cheerleading local officials.
The governor’s standing in various polls has crept slowly upward, although remaining in negative territory in several categories, and the investigation by the U. S. Attorney is still ongoing. Both are matters of concern for him.
The legislative committee is seemingly stymied at the moment and in need of a jumpstart of some kind to pique interest. Investigations like this need fresh developments and new revelations the way the rest of us need oxygen.
Moreover, if the Republican members make good on their threat to remove themselves and if a handful of Democrats accept Sweeney’s reasoning, the committee’s future is dim, indeed.
The administration has not been immune from its own public relations blunders, most notably the gratuitous insults and personal invective poured on Kelly in the Mastro report. The missteps portrayed an administration confused and uncoordinated, fanning the controversy rather than dousing it. It’s managed, though, to largely move past them and, at this point, is approaching a standoff with the committee.
The tough it out strategy has made inroads. Christie and his allies hope it turns out like it did for the 42nd president, not the 37th.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.