Re l’affaire Christie, If I read another riff on, “local politics is always like that,” or “that’s just how power works,” I think I’ll have to throw an abusive tirade that will make a Chris Christie outburst look like a lecture from grandma. No, helping out friends and punishing enemies is not power, it’s the temptation of power, and after being done, the abuse of power. Power is, in fact, often abused, but even if it gets normalized that doesn’t make it shrugworthy.

I’ll also say this, not yet knowing how all this turns out. Arrogant leaders who like to use power for the sake of it always ultimately pay the price, and it’s usually something small that snowballs into the thing that destroys them. With Woodrow Wilson it was a couple small changes to the Versailles Treaty. For Nixon it was a break-in he didn’t even order. For Thatcher it was the 50p tax and a failed, pathetic leadership challenge. For former Speaker Jim Wright, it was a rent-free apartment. But it wasn’t only those things, it was years of unlistening, dictatorial control and arrogance until they finally made one too many enemies and then, finally, it only took one feather to tip over the whole cart. To the extent that this is what is meant by the term “strong leader,” you probably don’t want to have one of those in terms of the long run.

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In a play you could have seen coming from a couple small planets away, prominent conservatives are arguing that “Bridgegate” just isn’t a big deal because of Benghazi and the IRS. Any new chance to trot those out I guess, you just have to admire the message discipline here if nothing else. But it’s worth saying that these are, essentially, red herrings since there’s no way to make this argument non-idiotically. Chris Christie fired his deputy Chief of Staff because she was directly implicated in the lane closures. Barack Obama fired no White House staff over either of those stories because there was no evidence of deliberate malfeasance on the part of the Obama team, according to the facts. Incompetence? Perhaps. But the only possible incompetence comparatively is that of Chris Christie in the event that a high-ranking aide was actually able to pull the wool completely over his eyes and launch a misguided, legally dubious vendetta. Had the White House Chief of Staff’s deputy texted somebody about reducing staff to the U.S. Embassy to Libya, then it would be comparable, but there’s simply nothing like that that is known to exist.

I do feel like this is a discussion worth having. The executive branch has reached such elephantine proportions that no president can know everything that is going on in every federal agency. You could probably make the same argument about some of the larger states’ governments as well. The broader point is this: how much do we really expect executives to know? When should they get blame and when shouldn’t they? I don’t have a simple answer on this question. However, I will say that the right-wing argument here–that possibly criminal (and certainly shady/unethical) conspiracies involving close aides to the executive are no big deal, while incompetence/poor decisionmaking (but certainly not criminal behavior) by bureaucrats several layers removed from the executive (located in cities a great distance from where he works) are gravely serious and possibly even grounds for dismissal–is simply incoherent, and only makes sense viewing the world from a purely partisan perspective. You could argue either that the executive is completely responsible for everything done in the government under their watch, not merely in a formal way but strictly speaking, in which case Christie is toast. You could also argue (as I would) that it’s essentially impossible to run a government this way, especially in a country as big as the United States, and that it’s unrealistic to expect the executive to know, say, the dynamics of the Social Security office on Cirby Way in Roseville, CA, and that this should be at least taken into account when assigning blame. This is obviously a debate, and I can accept a variety of answers and shades of gray here. However, you can’t argue for the first approach for a president you disapprove of, and the second approach for a governor you do approve of, especially if the second one doesn’t fit since the conspiracy did in fact reach the inner circle of the Christie Administration. It’s a silly, uncreative way of trotting out FOX/Rush/Drudge obsessions at best, and not nearly good enough to salvage anything from Christie. If this really is the best defense of Christie they have then he’d better be afraid, though there is some poetic justice in a man who spent his 2012 Republican National Convention speech almost entirely on himself being “defended” with defenses that are more about keeping BENGHAZI! and the IRS scandals relevant to conservative media consumers than about actually defending him.

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Christie

Takes on a new meaning now…

A lot of people yesterday (you know, Halperin, Fournier, et al) declared Chris Christie’s presser a huge success almost immediately, but my first response was that it was a disaster disguised as a triumph because the narrative and many of the details were either already known to be untrue or are so unlikely that it makes the lotto look like a great investment. Christie struck the right tone but it’s quite clear that he’s spinning his wheels, pressing a narrative that does not pass muster. The cracks are already growing, like the notion that he’d only heard about the whole thing Monday morning:

Mr. Christie, a Republican, complained in a private phone call to Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, that Patrick Foye, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was pressing too hard to get to the bottom of why the number of toll lanes onto the bridge from Fort Lee, N.J. was cut from three to one in early September, according to this person. The lane closures occurred without notice to local authorities, officials have said, and snarled traffic for a week in the small borough on the Hudson River bluffs.

Circumstantial, for sure. As is this:

Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D) in a statement drew particular attention to a document showing an apparent meeting between Christie and the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the bridge, just days before his deputy chief of staff wrote an email to a top Port Authority appointee saying it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

You couldn’t convict with this evidence. In fact, while the narrative of Christie’s direct involvement is definitely supported by this information, other narratives are in fact possible. I say this to be fair. But it’s definitely enough to raise reasonable doubt about his story of complete noninvolvement, which seems more untenable by the second.

My analysis? I don’t know for sure if Chris Christie was directly involved. But his reaction to the scandal is, indeed, what guilty politicians tend to do when caught at doing something untoward and damaging. In fact, it’s very, very similar to Richard Nixon’s playbook on Watergate: first treat the thing as no big deal, then blame it on a couple of staff members, who then take a fall. But every step Nixon took backfired, and it does appear that yesterday’s press conference was merely the end of the beginning.

The question I ask myself is, why do this? Why take pages from one of the worst damage control efforts in history? In Nixon’s case, the answer was simple: the man was completely, fully delusional and just as self-righteous. Garry Wills, in Nixon Agonistes, pegged this to the influence of his mother, who insisted young Dick was an angel and ignored any and all shortcomings. Given that the older Nixon was easily able to bomb countries we weren’t at war with, build an entire web of extragovernmental goons and a stream of money to support them, and tell people to cover up crimes on tape without ever seeming to question his own goodness seems like strong proof of this theory: just so long as mom (or the American people) don’t find out about it, it doesn’t count. Nixon, of course, is not known to have directly ordered the Watergate break-in, and who knows, maybe if he’d come clean and said that he had panicked and was just trying to help close friends and colleagues, perhaps reaction would have been different. But ultimately his self-righteousness proved to be his undoing. Nixon couldn’t allow people to see him in that way, so he presented one story after another to the public about Watergate, each painting him as entirely blameless, and upon each one falling apart, the public became more convinced that he was guilty to an even greater extent than he actually was. Christie, of course, is no slouch in the self-righteousness department. How else do you justify yelling at working stiffs to yourself? Insulting people to shut down conversations? Only works if you believe very deeply in your own moral authority. Deeply enough to try to shut down more powerful political opponents? Maybe. But the need to present one’s self to the public as unimpeachable is one Christie shares with Nixon, and the results to date are surprisingly similar.

Obviously, we’ll learn much more in the days and weeks to come. But the simple fact is that Christie’s response suggests culpability more than his actions.

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I just love how folks in the ever-so-exceptionally educated and enlightened branch of Christianity are so quick to dismiss atheist polemicists like Richard Dawkins because he thinks Christianity is what the silly ignorant Christian rubes (who believe stuff like Jesus rode dinosaurs) think it is, rather than the ever-so-exceptionally enlightened true essence of what Christianity is REALLY about:

One of the worst aspects of conservative evangelicalism is that too often, especially on its fundamentalist fringes, its literalism encourages know-nothing atheism of the Dawkins variety. If Christianity actually entailed the beliefs that the earth was created 6,000 years ago and homosexuality is evil and there really was a Noah who built a gigantic boat, I wouldn’t want anything to do with it, either. I imagine Richard Dawkins never held a third-grader in a trailer and forced him to confess that the theory of punctuated equilibria is false.  But Christianity does not entail such beliefs, I make bold enough to say.

As you’re reading this, I’m probably still laughing at that last bit.  No true Scotsman.  Indeed.

I can understand why a centrist of a certain bent would look at the popularity and gravitas of the Queen of the United Kingdom and wish that the US had a public figure like her, a nonpolitical national personality associated with the state. However, the concept simply doesn’t transfer to an American context, and Michael Auslin’s stupid article (via, no direct links to POLITICO here) mostly proves why it doesn’t. Basically, the UK is still formally a monarchy because, unlike France, Italy, Greece, Germany and Russia, no British Monarch led their country into a devastating modern war. England went from “divine right of kings” to “supremacy of the masses” without actually shutting down the institution of the Monarchy, and eventually found an ancillary use for it as a living repository for continuity with the British past. That is the primary use of having a powerless monarch, and it’s not a bad use! Societies are clearly interested in continuity, hence why publishers never stop flooding us with dull books about the Founding Fathers, why political figures keep yammering about the Founding Fathers, why brewers name beverages after the Founding Fathers, even though today’s political context bears little resemblance to a new country 240 years ago and our society and government would be similarly unrecognizable to them. Continuity with the entirety of your nation’s history embodied within an institution is the main thing the Monarchy provides, and obviously, despite the Queen’s popularity if England had remained a republic after Cromwell and if the contemporary Cameron Government were to propose a bill giving a random family a rent-free place of living in a historic castle right in the middle of London (and another in Scotland), as well as covering the costs of travel, education, food, utilities and all the rest in exchange for having no real duties or power outside of setting election dates, it is highly unlikely that this would be a popular move.

But that is essentially Auslin’s big idea. The gist of it is that a “First Citizen” who is legally prohibited from voicing political opinions, exercising power, or doing anything other than taking over the ceremonial duties of the president and rallying the people with necessarily generic paeans to patriotism seems like a gigantic waste of time. After the novelty wears off, the press would stop covering this person in favor of the people who actually have an impact on peoples’ lives. Not to mention the bizarre grab bag of requirements like never holding political office (like Roman Tribunes I guess?). The notion that this pseudo-Monarch would immediately upend the political spectrum and end partisan division is silly, as is the notion that any individual would be able to meet the ridiculous confirmation criteria (which includes a blatantly un-Constitutional breach of the separation of powers by giving the Supreme Court confirmation duties, and requires the Court to unanimously confirm the nominee (?)). The Monarchy has assumed the place it does in British life because of the extreme length of time it’s been around, and because of glory and glamour and the history of the institution accumulated during that time. But the “First Citizenship” would be a useless, ceremonial office with no history or even an organic reason for existence to begin with, thus eliminating its utility as a fix for the short-term problem of political polarization.

The real way to read this is as the cry of a political establishment that has become jaded and despondent during the Obama years. After all, Barack Obama promised them he’d try to work with Republicans and he has, indeed, tried to work with Republicans. He negotiated with them when it was obvious it would not work. He made substantial concessions just to get them on board with his plans, even when that was not necessary (and pissed off his base). He wined and dined them, he flattered some of them, he declined to attack senior Republicans like John Boehner and Paul Ryan in hopes that he would make budget deals more likely, leaving potential political leverage on the table. In short, he did everything they wanted him to do, and none of it worked. Rather than merely just accept that Republicans do not want to compromise with Obama for their own reasons (which is their right, though their recklessness is a whole other matter), it’s been common for Beltway types to simply shoot the messenger and blame Obama for it all. At this point, Ron Fournier and Bob Woodward have all but issued their respective fatwas. This “First Citizen” notion is more indirect, but the basic idea is that all we need is an elite with the right kind of personality to unite us all (and that Obama is not that person). One of the things the Obama years have taught me is that this line of reasoning is fatuous. No such personality exists. The basic reason we have polarization is that Republicans prefer it to cooperation. No need to make a phony king that wouldn’t fix it.

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Such as this one…

I appreciate Ed Kilgore’s sentiment here, but I think it’s safe to say that Christie is indeed finished, if he wasn’t before. This is in large part because having the image of a squeaky-clean performer is imperative to his efforts to advance his career. Christie might indeed be able to weather such a scandal if he were governor of, say, Minnesota, which does not have a reputation for dirty politics (quite the opposite in fact). However, he represents a state that is to a large extent defined by corruption in the public mind, and his national image depends completely on his being “the last honest man fighting that stuff” rather than being of it. The voters will indeed elevate people from suspect jurisdictions if they believe that the person in question had integrity and fought against corruption, but they will not if the person is embedded in that corruption. There’s a reason why Chicago ward heelers and New Orleans parish politicians rarely find themselves elevated to become viable presidential candidates. The example of President Barack Obama is instructive, as in his career Obama scrupulously avoided any sort of political dealings that would have allowed him to be labeled as “Chicago” in the public’s mind (obviously, the right has labeled him so anyway, though the accusations have remained contained to people who need to believe this whether it’s true or not). The only reason that Bobby Jindal finds himself taken seriously at all is because the collapse of his power in Louisiana was due to ideological factors, not personal corruption (though he cuts a different figure from, say, Edwin Edwards). To the extent that Christie can be dismissed as being emblematic of a culture of corruption–and he hails from a state that is believed to be an especially strong example of it, fairly or not–he simply will not be taken seriously. And at this point I’d say that’s where we’re at.

Of course, if even half the sleaze that’s been rumored about Christie is true, then he never had a prayer anyway. Also, I will pass along this list of corrupt states, which does not include Jersey, and which is accented by some excellent photographs that make me want to visit all of these states regardless of the state of their governments.

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A couple of short thoughts:

  • The question isn’t why Bill Clinton, who probably does not lack for money, would endorse a for-profit education company. We know the answer to this: he sometimes just doesn’t think through all the implications of what he’s doing. The question is: will Bill Clinton again be a distraction for a Hillary Clinton campaign, chewing up news cycles as his business and personal dealings are pulled apart? And obviously the answer to that is yes, of course, the press will be looking for it anyway, and it’s right neighborly of Mr. Clinton to make their lives easier. God, this is going to be another exhausting presidential campaign.
  • I’m conflicted on the question of Brian Schweitzer’s possible presidential candidacy after reading this interview with Weigel. On the one hand, his conduct regarding the Montana Senate race was irritating, prima-donna stuff that might well cost our side a seat. And his appeal to key parts of the Obama Coalition is unknown, not to mention some real iffy positions on energy and guns. This said, I think it would be great if he ran against Clinton because it would put an articulate opponent of NSA spying and military-industrial excesses on the stage with Clinton, which would at least mean she’d have to stand up for her (presumably opposing) stances, and even sharpen them up a bit.
  • Additionally, the most important part of the 2016 Dem nomination is that it be an adversarial contest rather than a coronation. I’d be much happier with Clinton as a nominee if progressives and civil libertarians were able to flex some muscle and demand consideration. Presidents mostly just mediate among interests anyway, so it’s critically important that a president believe that certain interests need to be listened to and respected. Like the Coens wrote in Miller’s Crossing: “You run this town because people think you run it. They stop thinking it, you stop running it.” Only the inverse.

Also, this isn’t precisely 2016 related, but the notion that Steven Seagal will be elected to any office is deeply silly. His career is a testament to the man’s fundamental lack of discipline and lack of interest in doing what is necessary to maintain his one-time success, neither of which screams “successful politician” at all. Also, he’s a Buddhist of a rather, ahem, unorthodox persuasion:

I can see it now: VOTE FOR GOD 2014!

Also, he makes crappy blues music:

Just because it sounds like a novelty song and is made by someone whose fame is more compelling than the art doesn’t make it a novelty…oh wait, yes it does.