January 10, 2014

Why Chris Christie's Traffic Jam Matters

File this under the category of "past performance predicts future behavior."

During a lengthy press conference yesterday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced he had fired his deputy chief of staff and removed a top political adviser for their roles in creating traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge for four days last September, presumably as a way to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee. (You can find excellent background information here, watch the press conference here, or read the transcript here.) Because Gov. Christie is one of the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, much of the reporting has focused on the damage this scandal may have on his chances. And both John Sides at The Monkey Cage and Johnathan Bernstein at Bloomberg discuss the impact the scandal may have on the invisible primary—Christie's ability to raise money and secure key endorsements that make or break a nomination.

Although it's natural to consider how this incident affects his chances for the Republican nomination, I'm more interested in what it reveals about a potential Chris Christie presidency. For example, we knew during the 1992 campaign that Bill Clinton was a womanizer (see Gennifer Flowers), so it's not surprising that as President he continued that behavior with Monica Lewinsky. And we knew during the 2008 campaign that Barack Obama lacked executive experience (see 3AM Phone Call), so it's not surprising that we've witnessed a botched rollout of Obamacare. It's in this light that we should consider Gov. Christie's press conference yesterday.

During the press conference, Christie said he was blindsided Wednesday when he learned about the role his key aides played in the scandal and defended himself by saying he gives his staff "enormous authority." Let's assume that Christie is telling the truth. Then his deputy chief of staff and top political advisor—two of his closest aides—ran a rouge operation on their own authority and kept the details from him for four months.

This is a clear failure on Christie's part to do what Richard Neustadt referred to as "protecting his power stakes." If Christie is telling the truth, the incident reveals that he lacks judgment in selecting close aides (they did something on their own authority and lied to him about it), that his administrative model permits his staff to act in the absence of accountability, or both. Consequently, we should expect a similar lack of judgment or absence of staff accountability in a Christie administration with all the attendant consequences.

Of course, Christie might be lying about being blindsided by the revelations on Wednesday. His aides may have been acting on his authority all along. In other words, Christie might have directed his staff to use the power of the Governor's office to punish his political opponents and, when that abuse of power came to light, threw his aides under the bus in an attempt to salvage his political aspirations. Thus, if Christie is lying, we should expect him to use his power as president in a similar fashion and, if caught in the act, to shield himself from blame by letting his staff take the fall.

The bottom line is that regardless of whether Christie was telling the truth yesterday, we picked up some valuable information about what to expect in possible Christie administration.


  1. I would like to compare Chirstie's reaction on this matter with Obama's reaction to Benghazi and Mrs Clinton. I'm still waiting for an explanation about the supposes protest over a video that has repeatedly been refuted, yet still this administration has yet to offer a plausible reason for the video protest idea, explain where if came from, or explain why Ambassador Stevens was not protected in his time of need. And we still have no account of where the Commander in Chief was during the attack, or why he failed to act. At least Christie apologized and fired those responsible.

    1. I wanted to highlight that if Gov. Christie is telling the truth he failed to "protect his power stakes"--an application of Neustadt's framework. The Benghazi situation doesn't strike me as one where administration officials were acting on their own authority and undermining the President. As for information about Benghazi, try these: http://bit.ly/1hJImbW, http://bit.ly/1aHq5dk, http://bit.ly/KDF2TB, http://bit.ly/1jvD3gM.