The role of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the continuing revelations about the George Washington Bridge lane closures and the growing list of other questionable behavior seems to be fading from scandal into the new normal - bad, but increasingly old news. One of the threads in the story is the damage this is doing to his chances of being the Republican nominee for President in 2016.
Or is it?
The mystery is, why did anyone think he'd make a good choice for the party (or the country!) in the first place?
It's a telling indictment of so much that is wrong with our political system these days. Examining Christie as a case study is a useful exercise in elucidating the larger issues with which we're dealing - or failing to deal. Discussion ensues below the Orange Omnilepticon.
There are multiple sides to the Mystery of Christie, not the least of which is how did he ever get the high repute he did? There have been plenty of warning signs in his career to suggest that he's an individual with some potentially serious character issues, issues that should have raised flags about his fitness for high office. Yet… with few exceptions, no flags were raised. And Christie is hardly the only politician who has benefitted from the curious omission. Conversely, there are politicians who are constantly at the center of scandals… that have no substance. WTF?
Any regular visitor to Daily Kos is probably familiar with the phenomena I'm about to explore, but it is still useful to step back every so often and look at them in a larger framework. Let's start by looking at one of the places where trouble starts.
The Horse Race
One of the biggest failings of the press and the punditry is the tendency to treat politics as some kind of sporting event - who is winning, who is losing - and not look beyond that or dig any deeper - coverage a mile wide and an inch deep. When you hear presidential primaries and caucuses described as "Beauty Contests", that's because to a great degree they are. Candidates rise and fall on how well they can market themselves to the voters who actually turn out and the reporters covering them. It's all about who is leading in the polls, whose messaging seems to be working. Do a good job fluffing the press, and they'll respond in kind. Piss them off, and it's a different story.
Who actually has the skills needed to do the job once elected, what kind of character they bring to the office - and just what kind of actual performance record they have in their past too easily gets lost in the hullabaloo, the freak-show atmosphere that begins in the primaries and continues on the campaign trail. Sometimes truth actually emerges - as in Romney's infamous video railing about the takers. (NOT something the press came up with on its own, though it was no surprise to anyone who'd been following Romney's career.) Which leads into another side of the mystery.
"The Narrative" is the story that everyone knows and more or less accepts, about candidates, their records, and the other stories in the news around them. It has the great advantage of being simple and persuasive - at least it does if it is going to succeed as narrative. And once it gets established, it shapes the way reporting is done. Stories write themselves, and it contributes to the Horse Race style of reporting. It takes a huge effort for a reporter to go against the narrative.
For a candidate, establishing the right narrative is vital. A favorable narrative is like gold; an unfavorable narrative can kill a campaign before it starts - and some narratives swing both ways, appealing to one bloc of voters and turning another off. Joe Biden is still dogged by plagiarism charges that ended his 1988 presidential run; Rand Paul is apparently a serial plagiarizer, yet it seems to have done little damage to his career. For Christie, the narrative that he's a tough-talking strong leader not afraid to face down those he thinks deserve it is battling the narrative that he's just a thug and a bully - and a helpless victim when caught out at it.
But the narrative isn't just about what the agreed-on story is; it's also about all of the things that get left out. There should have been warning signs about Christie's character going back to his days as a U.S. Attorney. Martin Longman over at Washington Monthly's Political Animal points out that Christie survived the Bush purge of U.S. Attorneys in 2007. Christie was more than willing to use his office for ratf**king - that is, partisan political maneuvers.
Granted, New Jersey politics ain't no bed of roses. The terms of the three men who held the governor's office before Christie, Jim McGreevey, Richard Codey, and John Corzine read like a plot line for a really bad soap opera. (It gets even crazier if you look at all the trading off of acting governors who stepped in after Christine Todd Whitman left to go head the EPA.) Christie's pose as a tough but straight-dealing former U.S. Attorney Republican probably looked like a breath of fresh air to voters after what the Democrats in the state had given them. Although given the nature of New Jersey politics at the best of times, that's not a high bar to clear.
More stories surface every day about his tactics as governor now that it's 'safe' to look into them. NPR has some tales to tell; Robin Marty at the Care2 site has the top five cases of Christie the bully. None of this stuff was exactly secret - but it got swamped by the narrative of Christie as a rough but effective leader who was a moderate because he wasn't as crazy as the Tea Party and welcomed President Obama bearing disaster relief after Superstorm Sandy instead of spitting on him and his money - the money it now looks like he used in part for what effectively became campaign ads. Money he also apparently felt free to play carrot and stick with...
Chris Hedges has a far different portrait of Christie and the tangled politics surrounding, including truly bipartisan corruption. It's a narrative the media does not want to look too deeply into for fear of what else is in there:
Christie is pitched to the public, as was George W. Bush, as a regular guy, someone who speaks bluntly and candidly, someone you would want to have a beer with. But this is public relations crap. He is and has long been a hatchet man for corporate firms and big banks. He began his career as a corporate lobbyist in Trenton, N.J., working for clients such as the Securities Industry Association. He has done their bidding ever since. His wife, Mary Pat Christie, is a bond trader who has worked at JPMorgan Chase, Fleet Securities and Cantor Fitzgerald and is currently a managing director at Angelo Gordon, an investment firm in New York.Messaging Machines and Working The Refs
Horse races, narratives - they're integral elements of the art of messaging: shaping opinions, crafting a desired narrative, framing issues. This is something Conservatives have spent vast amounts of money and time perfecting. FOX News, talk radio, conservative think tanks, astro turf groups - they blast conservative viewpoints 24/7. They continually attack the 'liberal media'. They specialize in throwing hissy fits - and pretty much dominate the mainstream press that has been conditioned over the last 30 years (Since Saint Ronald Reagan) to regard Republican ideas and policies as being beyond question, while treating all things Democratic with suspicion. (A trend aided and abetted by Democrats who 'third way' triangulate to ingratiate themselves with independents and so-called moderates, while 'hippie-punching' The 'Extremist Left'.)
If you look at Sunday talk shows, conservative voices abound. If you look at media narratives, Democrats are always suspect as weak, feminized leaders (Unless they're female, like Hillary the Bitch-Queen from Hell), while Republicans are strong and fiscally responsible manly men. Never mind that the record fails to back this up - remember the narrative is about what can't be said as much as what can.
Rudy Giuliani towards the end of his last term as mayor was increasingly unpopular and seen as a little dictator. His marital scandals should have totally disqualified him from any claim to leadership in the party of 'moral values' - but a terror attack on 911 suddenly transformed him into America's Mayor. Never mind the scandals about his abuses of power that surfaced afterwards, or the revelations about his closest associates. It's no wonder he's been trotted out to defend Christie - he might well be considered the prototype for him. And it's also no wonder that Christie has taken on Giuliani's lawyer for his defense.
One of the tools for crafting a narrative is framing, creating a bias in public perception favorable to its operation, AKA spin. Reports of problems with Christie's behavior impact people differently if they believe it's a matter of "the liberal press out to get him". Hand in hand with framing is the Overton Window, the idea that at any given time there is only a limited range of ideas and policies that are considered acceptable for debate by the public - anything outside that window is dismissed as 'not reasonable'.
To further cloud the picture, let's include projection. It's a particular technique of framing that calls for attributing one's own sins to one's opponents. For example, liberals are constantly berated by conservatives over spending beyond the country's means - yet in practice it is conservatives who have been racking up huge deficits by spending wildly on things they favor - wars of choice, tax cuts for the rich, etc. - yet refusing to pay for them.
When Bill Clinton left office, not only was there a balanced federal budget, there was actually a surplus and the national debt was being paid down. During the 8 years of the George W. Bush presidency, the deficit exploded under the burden of 2 wars AND tax cuts - and the Medicare drug benefit enacted for political gain without revenues to fund it.
Discussions about the economy have been framed in terms of keeping government from holding back the 'job creators', and keeping people from becoming dependent on government help. The Overton Window served to exclude things that challenged the assumptions underneath that framing. The collapse of the economy, the revealed incompetence and greed of the 'job creators', and the efforts of Occupy Wall Street shifted the Overton Window to a point where it's now possible to discuss the toxic effects of massive inequality and the need for the government to do more, not less. Simply having the term "the 1%" enter the conversation has changed the discussion in ways that really matter.
If you look at the bottom 4 percent of the top 5, you see good but not spectacular income gains. These are the kinds of gains that you might be able to explain in terms of skills, assortative mating, and so on. But the top 1 percent is in a different universe altogether. And in fact the gains within the top 1 percent are concentrated in an even smaller group: this is a Pareto distribution thing, in which the higher the income the greater the percentage gains.
The point is that using wider definitions than the one percent is, in effect, diluting the wolves of Wall Street by lumping them in with the upper middle class. Not the same story at all.
And the whole point of framing and controlling the view through the Overton Window is about what stories get told - and what stories don't.
The Courtier Press
Time and time again, the media gets it wrong, fails to follow through, or just mindlessly parrots talking points. John Kerry served two tours in Vietnam, was decorated for his service, and returned to become active in opposition to the war. George W. Bush got into the Texas Air National Guard under questionable circumstances, never saw combat, eventually stopped showing up for duty, and was discharged without sanction under circumstances that still have never been explained. So guess which one was ridiculed for his service, accused of fraud and worse, and which one was painted as a strong leader and military hero? The horse race, the narrative, the messaging machine were working overtime on that one - but what the hey? After what the press did to Al Gore in 2000, trashing Kerry was a walk in the park.
There are several factors at work. There is, of course, the determined effort by conservatives to intimidate the press into submission. It is an article of faith that the press has a liberal bias that unfairly attacks conservatives - in fact, it would be fair to say that the press is regarded as an enemy. Considering the importance the founding fathers put on a free press to preserve democracy and accountability, that's a rather telling giveaway. It would be an understatement to observe that conservatives don't handle criticism well - and they make their unhappiness felt as painfully as necessary. (For an example of an archetypal response on a key conservative issue - guns - take a look at this story from Salon by Matt Valentine, Shooting the Messenger.)
Then there's the access problem. The 24/7 news cycle, the internet, twitter, Facebook, etc. etc. drives the flow of information at breakneck speed. The press is in a race to collect eyeballs that doesn't take time for introspection or in depth analysis. Narratives get established more quickly than ever, and the reporter or pundit who gets left behind gets trampled in the dust - which is what makes access vital.
The ability to get inside information, to pick up a phone, to talk to someone is like being able to mint money in the information age. The price is to swallow down whole the narrative being handed out, and not ask any embarrassing questions. Politicians able to pull this off end up cultivating a string of reliable 'stenographers' in the media who can be counted on to help them craft the narrative they desire to spread. Christie has gone further in this regard, effectively creating his own Youtube channel to build his desired narratives. Hedges sums up how Christie pulls this off.
Christie’s large public entourage always includes a videographer who captures the governor’s frequent public humiliation of those—public school teachers are his favorite targets for ridicule—who have the audacity to question his judgment. These exchanges are immediately edited and uploaded to YouTube. There are now more than 600.
Citizen Kane should have had it so good.
One of the other things shaping the courtier press is the tremendous media consolidation that has taken place. The effective gutting of antitrust laws means there are few independent voices left in the media; most are cogs in larger corporate empires. Those corporate empires are not interested in journalism per se - what they're selling is A) entertainment, B) shareholder value, and C) the narratives that serve their interests. One of the things complicating Christie's life these days is the New York Times, which has been pursuing his story comparatively aggressively, plus the concentrated media market in NYC in which Christie has found himself trapped in a popular entertainment genre - the politician caught in scandal. Oops! Compare and contrast with Scott Walker in Wisconsin - far away from the media circus of the Big Apple, and blessed by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
So, take a courtier press practicing stenography instead of journalism, throw in an unhealthy fear of conservative pushback on real reporting, and corporate news as entertainment, and what do you get? False equivalence - he said/she said reporting without context or distinctions to avoid the dreaded "liberal bias" of reality. Truthiness. You get Idiot America, where:
The Gut is the basis for the Great Premises of Idiot America. We hold these truths to be self-evident:And you get a Chris Christie touted as Presidential material.
1) Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
2) Anything can be true if somebody says it on television.
3) Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.
This concludes Part 1 of the Christie Mystery Case Study. Part 2 will dive even deeper into the pathologies the Christie Mystery exposes, so stay tuned...