A lesson for Chris Christie: When in Zuma-like predicament, always do what Zuma does

A lesson for Chris Christie: When in Zuma-like predicament, always do what Zuma does

The US presidential race is still two years in the future, but New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, hobbled by his own political scandal, is trying to resurrect his campaign - even before it launches formally. Meanwhile, various would-be candidates have already been flocking to explain (and promote) themselves to rich, would-be kingmakers. J. BROOKS SPECTOR tries to puzzle it all out.

Up until late 2013, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie seemed to be on a trajectory likely to place him in a favourable position in the jockeying for the informal title of front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. That is, until some horrendous traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson River from Fort Lee, New Jersey to New York City changed Christie’s political life.

Earlier stories in The Daily Maverick have already set out the formative stages of the scandal, rather non-euphoniously tabbed “Bridgegate”. In brief, political aides and associates of Governor Christie – especially those involved in managing the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey responsible for the many bridges and tunnels in and out of the Big Apple – contrived to shut down vehicle lanes onto the George Washington Bridge, thereby creating a monstrous traffic jam with miles of stalled tail-backs.

The idea for this lunatic scheme, apparently, was to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, a Democrat, for refusing to endorse Christie in his 2013 re-election campaign, thereby creating enormous commuter dissatisfaction with Fort Lee’s city administration. The plot having been discovered, one of Christie’s senior aides resigned in disgrace and a long-time political appointee friend finally left the Port Authority under a cloud – and growing threats of criminal investigations and state legislative inquiries. Actually there was a second presumed scandal as well, the second one involving the apparent withholding of federal funds from the City of Hoboken, funds designated for renovation and recovery after Hurricane Sandy, and Hoboken was also, not too surprisingly, headed by a Democratic mayor who would not jump when Governor shouts so.

Christie has been seriously stung by the controversy. Then, watching as his presidential hopes seemed to dissolve right before his eyes – who, after all, would want a president who not only looked a lot like Tony Soprano, but also seemed to share some of his managerial style? – Christie seemed happy to let aides and friends be thrown or throw themselves under the bus.

And he went one step further, effectively following the pattern of a certain inter-ministerial committee on Nkandla. Christie set up an in-house investigation to check out what had happened, write its report, and then – hopefully – exonerate him from any of the wrongdoing. Well, to be truthful, it would have been rather odd for any investigative committee to go on the warpath, digging deep to prove that the committee members’ political masters were guilty of something.

Or, as Politico described the process over the weekend, “New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has a 300-page report clearing his name. He has recorded two national television interviews to share with America his feelings of frustration and remorse. At an hour-long press conference Friday, the onetime GOP presidential favorite did everything but unfurl a ‘Case Closed’ banner behind him.”

Surprise. And South Africans would have easily recognised the hallmarks of an approach to keep a certain politician from being tagged with responsibility for a certain vanity building project with a custom chicken run and fire pool.

Not surprisingly, former New York City Mayor and GOP luminary Rudi Giuliani came to the modified defence of Christie on the influential Meet the Press news analysis television program that while the internal report clearing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie of wrongdoing in this scandal did not totally exonerate his fellow Republican, nevertheless, it was “a good step in the right direction.” Giuliani is a former federal prosecutor and while he declined to bless the investigation as full and complete, he did argue it should not be tossed aside as unimportant.

Following the release of the governor’s own internal investigation and his various press appearances, the New York Times was rather less charitable. After the release of the internal report, it argued, “Lawyers hired by Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey at public expense issued their findings Thursday on the traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge in September, apparently engineered as a bizarre form of political revenge. To no one’s surprise, Mr. Christie’s lawyers have found his hands to be clean. He was without fault, they declared.”

The Times went on to say, “This glossy political absolution cost the taxpayers of New Jersey more than $1 million in legal fees. We can now add this expensive whitewash to the other evidence of trouble in Mr. Christie’s administration. If Mr. Christie really wants to win back public trust, he and his political allies can start by paying for this internal inquiry out of their own pockets. Then the governor and these lawyers can make all emails and any other crucial information available to federal and state investigators…. The report lays the blame for this entire scandal on two of Mr. Christie’s former colleagues, who refused to be interviewed. One was Bridget Anne Kelly, who was Mr. Christie’s deputy chief of staff until he called her a liar at a news conference and fired her in January. The other was David Wildstein, a former Christie ally and appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who resigned last year.”

Regardless of Christie’s still-unresolved political problems, and despite the early betting that his upward trajectory was all but ended, the governor is trying hard to “turn the page” on his future prospects. Effectively clutching that 300-page report as a shield, the old abrasive Chris Christie still had a bit of life in him. In his Friday news conference he chastised reporters for wanting to rehash those now, suddenly, old, already disproved charges. “Why don’t you just get to the question, cut the commentary a little?” he told one reporter. And then, “You have to get the facts right if you’re going to ask me a question,” Christie told another. Then he labelled yet other questions as being “beneath” the journalists who had asked them. “He-he-he”, New Jersey-style, it would seem.

And, then like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Ohio Governor John Kasich, also apparent aspirants for the Republican nomination two years away, Christie made the trek to Las Vegas to meet up with something called the Republican Jewish Coalition, in order to appeal to their souls and (eventually, perhaps) their wallets as well – for when the party’s nomination process begins in earnest. As Christie told the gathering, “We cannot have a world where our friends are unsure of whether we will be with them and our enemies are unsure of whether we will be against them. In New Jersey, nobody has to wonder whether I’m for them or against them.” Got it. The Middle East, East Asia, and Eastern Europe are just like Newark.

Not to be outdone, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker then told the group, the country requires a “swift and decisive” foreign policy, even as he insisted his party needed to unite behind someone who could be a presidential nominee from “outside Washington.” That should be read as code for not-Florida Senator Marco Rubio, not-Texas Senator Ted Cruz and, no, not-Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, either, especially since all three are all increasingly defined by how they using their Congressional committees and debates to highlight their career prospects.

Describing some elements of this event, Politico noted, “The [two] Republican governors, both considering presidential bids, appeared at Republican super donor Sheldon Adelson’s (Sheldon Adelson: A powerful man you’ve never heard of) Venetian resort casino along Las Vegas’ famed strip, speaking inside an ornate ballroom two floors from where gamblers crowded around blackjack and roulette tables. Two years before the official beginning of the next presidential contest, the lesser-known competition for the GOP’s most influential donors is well underway. Establishment-minded fundraisers have long encouraged former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to run, although many remain sceptical that Bush, the brother of former President George W. Bush, has the passion for a White House bid seven years after leaving office.”

Politico went on to say, “Some Republican officials have stepped up pressure on Bush to run in the wake of Christie’s bridge scandal, although there remains significant interest in Walker or other prospective candidates in what is considered a wide-open GOP field. But no single donor’s endorsement may be more powerful than Adelson, who is among the 10 richest people in the world. The casino magnate almost single-handedly bankrolled the group behind former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s 2012 campaign [through those super-PAC advocacy groups and other mechanisms]. Now, he’s casting for a new presidential candidate on whom to shower his millions in campaign cash. Adelson did not attend Walker’s speech, but he was seated directly in front of the podium as Christie spoke.” A Kremlinologist could have a field day with a moment like that.

And speaking of Jeb Bush, the former governor remains popular with many in his party, even though he has actually been out of electoral politics since left the governorship of Florida nearly a decade ago. Many Republicans see this third Bush as the best answer to some of the party’s most pressing problems, not least its demographic challenge of reaching the country’s growing Latino population by virtue of Bush’s wife, Columba, originally from Mexico, and Bush’s own ability in Spanish.

Moreover, some political insiders would say, virtually under their breath, with a careful look over their shoulders, that Jeb Bush is the southern governor named Bush they should have nominated in 2000, instead of that other brother. But besides his being out of the game now for years, Jeb Bush’s name also carries some potential pitfalls. There is no other way to say it other than to note: is the country really prepared to give the Bush family yet another bite at the presidential apple? Is there now permanent Bush fatigue?

For his part, Jeb Bush has kept his head, and indeed his entire political profile, almost below the radar, focusing on his direction of a family foundation. But as one after another potential candidate flails around or is eventually disqualified for an ethical or political blunder, Jeb Bush’s name may well come back to the front of things, for better or worse, promoted by back room insiders in the GOP.

Despite the country being two years away from the presidential election campaign, the Republican race for the presidential nomination already features an intriguing effort at political resurrection, a Republican sorting out about how they will deal with some of their richest backers, and how the party can establish a strategic approach to reining in the voter pool.

One thing appears certain, though: Tony Soprano of US politics, Chris Christie, will continue to have problems with those peskie little investigations on how much, and when, did he know. So far, he followed Jacob Zuma’s path pretty well. How well can he continue on the same path, remains to be seen. Democratic institutions in the US may just be able to finish the job South African structures could not. DM

Read more:

  • Combative Chris Christie tries to turn the page at Politico;

  • Giuliani: Christie report ‘a good step in the right direction’ in the Washington Post;

  • Christie, Walker court GOP donors in Las Vegas at the AP;

  • Chris Christie’s bridgegate report slammed as sexist, a commentary by Nia-Malika Henderson in the Washington Post;

  • A Whitewash for Gov. Christie in the New York Times;

  • Inquiry Is Said to Clear Christie, but That’s His Lawyers’ Verdict in the New York Times;

  • Influential Republicans working to draft Jeb Bush into 2016 presidential race at the Washington Post;

  • Chris Christie apologises for ‘occupied territories’ remark in Politico;

  • 2016ers woo Vegas donor crowd in Politico;

  • Seeking Political Revival, Christie Joins ’16 Contenders at G.O.P. Forum in the New York Times;

  • New G.O.P. Bid to Limit Voting in Swing States in the New York Times.

Photo: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie waves to the crowd during a Super Bowl host committee handover ceremony in New York New York, USA, 01 February 2014. EPA/ERIK S. LESSER; Jacob Zuma (Reuters)


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