When being “combative” crosses the line

487px-Chris_Christie_at_townhallChris Christie is an unusual politician: an extreme moderate, perhaps. He is certainly fairly liberal by Republican standards, and would probably never have been elected in New Jersey if he were not. But Christie is extremely forceful. When special interests such as government unions need to be confronted he first to take up the fight. This means he combines a willingness to work across the aisle with a willingness to take up the partisan fight. Being someone who appeals to independent and Democratic voters does not make him beloved of Democratic politicians or government unions. What appeals to Republicans as being forceful offends Democrats who paint him as an aggressive bully. This mix makes him seem like a strong candidate for president. There is enough of the hard-hitting street fighter to appeal to Republican primary voters and enough of the moderate to win swing voters.

Christie has had a mixed few months. In November he was re-elected as governor with more than 60% of the vote – some twenty points higher than Mitt Romney had won in New Jersey twelve months earlier. But now he faces a scandal which strongly reinforces the Democrats’ ‘bully’ narrative.

Emails and text messages have emerged suggesting that Christie appointees to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey deliberately closed lanes on bridges to create traffic chaos in the town of Fort Lee. Worse, it seems they did so in consultation with people in Christie’s office. 

Motivation remains unclear, but most people are linking the decision with the fact that Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor did not endorse Christie’s re-election, which numerous other elected Democrats did. Was this meant as a warning to other Democrats? There are other theories linking it to obstruction of judicial appointees by the member of the New Jersey Senate for the area. 

But, in either case, how could such ‘warnings’ be effective? The decision was surrounded with secrecy and publicly linked to a ‘traffic study’. It could only be a deterrent if people at least suspected political motivations. Was it therefore pure spite?

But if the motivation is unclear, the consequences are not. There was traffic chaos for commuters and delays have even been linked to the death of an elderly lady who was being rushed to hospital.

Christie has acted firmly on the crisis. Christie appointees to the Port Authority who were involved resigned in December. Now that emails have implicated the governor’s deputy chief of staff he has sacked her, stating that she lied to him.

This is precisely the firm action that the Nixon White House failed to take as early stories about Watergate began to emerge. In a crisis, people will accept that you don’t know everything. The correct response is not the BP line of “I don’t know” it is “I have ordered an investigation and will publish the results”. 

If the investigation clears Christie it will leave little more than a bad taste. Why was he appointing people who would behave in such an appalling – and possibly illegal – way?

But, of course, we do not know that the investigation will clear Christie. He leads the Republican governors and is a front-runner for higher office, but if he is implicated in this scandal, he may be forced to quit the office he has.

Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at brandjacknews.com


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