Chris Christie may be at fault for fostering a toxic culture around him. Photo: (Hindash, Saed/Star Ledger/Corbis)
In Double Down, the best-selling behind-the-scenes tome of the 2012 campaign, the authors delve into New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's interaction with the top of the Republican ticket. The portrait wasn't very flattering. Double Down's Christie was megalomaniacal, self-possessed, and obsessed with reciprocity: You do well by him, and he'll do well by you. You fundraise without his permission in New Jersey, and he'll cut the donors off. Loyalty trumped all. If Christie perceived you as disloyal, you were out of his inner circle. That's in passive voice because Christie would leave it to his lieutenants to enforce this code of honor.
In politics, the British Labourite Neil Kinnock one said, loyalty "is fine, but in excess, it fills political graveyards." Loyalty helps bond a team to a candidate, and it allows a candidate to trust his team to make decisions. It's an emolument, a grease, for efficient campaigning. But too much loyalty blinds people to their principle duties, and when combined with power, it frequently leads to abuse of office, misdirection, and even lying.
Now, we've seen texts and emails that directly implicate members of Christie's staff in the fabrication of a "study" that snarled traffic on the Geroge Washington Bridge from New York into New Jersey solely because the mayor of the city closest to the bridge, Fort Lee, wouldn't endorse him.
Disloyalty was the original sin. And so, people close to Christie sought revenge.
The fact that Christie's deputy chief of staff believed it was morally permissible to cause pain to innocents in order to retaliate against a perceived slight, without seeking his permission, and then refused to own up to it, tells us something about the culture that Christie creates around him. She assumed the boss would be okay with what she did. And so did many other Christie advisers, including his campaign manager. And since Christie denied having anything to do with the bridge study, he apparently has fostered a culture where it's okay to lie to the boss in order to protect him. That's the most generous interpretation; Christie himself might have lied, too. He hasn't said anything yet.
If he doesn't fix this "bridge scandal," are his presidential campaign plans doomed to failure? Probably. Here's what the story tells us:
1) Christie surrounded himself with a crowd that couldn't care less about the people of New Jersey at the same time as he was lauded for his "no partisanship here" response to Hurricane Sandy.
2) Christie, normally politically astute, may now be forever associated with traffic jams, something that everyone hates.
3) Christie's penchant for tough politicking (as he might spin it) plays horribly on the national stage.
4) Christie's entire self-created public image, that of a fearless, straight-talking, get-it-done guy with no tolerance for politics or bullshit, has been entirely subverted.
As CBS's John Dickerson, notes, this scandal is "cinematic, amusing, and repeatable."
It's not going to go away until Christie exorcizes the whole set of demons that led to it.
UPDATE: Gov. Christie released the following statement in response to the accusations:
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