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January 10th, 2014 11:52 am
A Few Thoughts on the Christie Scandal
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Slowly returning from the holiday deep freeze, the political media has spent most of this week fixated on the scandal out of New Jersey, where the Port Authority closed two of the three lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge back in September, causing serious traffic jams for days.

That story turned into a firestorm after it started to become clear earlier this week that allies of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had engineered the traffic jams as political punishment for the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey (where the bottleneck occurred), who had failed to endorse Christie’s reelection. A few thoughts:

— What makes the made-to-order traffic jam so singularly offensive is its thoughtless victimization of ordinary citizens who had nothing to do with the political infighting. Politicians are always going to engage in this sort of petty one-upmanship. Treating the voters as little more than collateral damage in the process, however, is the height of irresponsibility and makes a mockery of the notion of “public service.”

— Even putting the propriety of the act aside, this whole affair wasn’t even a particularly shrewd exercise in brass knuckle politics. Christie was a Republican governor with a commanding lead in a Democratic state. Failing to get the endorsement of the Mayor of Fort Lee was hardly going to make or break his campaign. And, of course, any reasonable cost-benefit analysis would have factored in the potential damage to the governor of this story coming out (Imagine if Christie had been dealing with the fallout from this story just before the November election instead of just after the new year).

— Like a lot of conservatives, I’m wary of Christie on a handful of issues. That said, his “talk until there aren’t any more questions” press conference yesterday was a superb exercise in crisis management. He took responsibility, fired the people involved, apologized, and demonstrated the kind of accountability that we rarely see in the midst of scandal. He also vehemently denied that he had anything to do with the shutdown, which is probably true—his assertions were so forceful yesterday that his political career would likely be over if it was revealed that he was lying.

— The media (and, to some extent, the general public) need to be a little bit more realistic about executive accountability. As the head of New Jersey’s executive branch, Christie is, of course, ultimately responsible for what goes on underneath him. That’s not quite the same thing as being culpable, however.

In an era of big, complex government, it’s impossible for a chief executive to know every detail of what’s going on beneath him (though it’s important to maximize the flow of information). People are going to make mistakes, sometimes accidentally, sometimes—as in this case—through crass calculation. Governors or presidents shouldn’t be faulted for these things happening unless they’ve directly enabled it. Where they should be held accountable is in bringing this people to heel. By that measure, Christie has done his job very well this week.

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