(AKA: Why Chris Christie’s “Bridgegate” Scandal Matters)
On Twitter, some people are questioning why such a big deal is being made about Chris Christie’s current trouble with the George Washington Bridge scandal. Why, they ask, with so many more-important stories that genuinely affect people, do the media and the public focus on personality-driven scandal stories of this type?
It’s a fair question.
The scandal-driven media perpetually make me gnash my teeth. Certainly, there are far too many stories which are pushed “above the fold,” or to the front page of news websites or run at the top of the hour on TV news, which are there strictly to attract readers/viewers. It’s an old game, and I even understand it to a degree. Part of the reason is to enhance click-counts or Nielsen ratings, to be sure. But in-depth stories about the actual nitty-gritty details of policies which are truly important and which affect millions of people significantly often require either substantial study or previous expertise to fully grasp. Sometimes both. The unfortunately reality of news is that the very stories which affect us most – stories about detailed policies – often are dry as dust and nearly impenetrable to the casual reader. Many people simply will not invest the time and energy required to deeply understand a complex policy issue. That’s why 30-second campaign commercials work, and it’s why shallow, scandal-driven political coverage gets more clicks than in-depth reporting, too.
Scandal stories are drawn in bright colors and have few if any murky details. Most people can easily understand the story of a politician caught patronizing prostitutes or accepting bribes or, as in Chris Christie’s recent case, exercising the power of his office to exact petty personal revenge without regard to the inconvenience or even safety of his constituents. These stories generate outrage, and they drive clicks/page views/Nielsen ratings. So, they are what the media often pursue.
In this case, however, though I might not agree with all the motives many in the media have for doing so, their focus on Christie is justified and important. Why? Four interlocking reasons.
- Chris Christie genuinely is a bully, the type of person who uses power for petty personal ends in a way not seen on the national political stage since Richard Nixon. This bridge scandal is far from the first example of it.
- Christie is assumed to be a 2016 Presidential contender.
- Prior to this scandal, Christie inexplicably (to me, anyway) had that critical aura of bipartisan appeal that any Presidential candidate needs to win over the all-important non-ideological “swing voter” in an election. Christie cruised to reelection in New Jersey less than two months ago with not just an overwhelming percentage of the state’s GOP voters, but also a significant number of both self-identified independents and even 30% of registered Democrats. Those are the kind of numbers that make a President.
- Outside of his home state, Christie’s name recognition may be high, but the conventional wisdom on Christie, with more than two years to go until the next Presidential election, does not paint him as the bully he is. Christie is thought of as a rough-edged “straight-talker” (why does the American political imagination so fixate on the poorly-defined concept of “straight talk?”).
If Chris Christie were not likely to throw his hat into the ring for President in 2016, this would be a New Jersey story. No less infuriating a story, and no less damning of Christie’s leadership style, managerial skills or both…but a NJ state story, nonetheless. Or, if the conventional wisdom on Christie already included the knowledge that he is a world-class bully who should be disqualified by virtue of that from seeking the Presidency, then this story would be merely more piling on.
As it stands, however, the George Washington Bridge scandal story is vitally important to ensuring the closest Chris Christie ever gets to the White House is a guided tour, or possibly an invitation from the President to a conference of Governors.