The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trials, tribulations and apologies

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All politicians mess up. Some more than others, and some recover better than ever. What separates great politicians from poor ones is that by the time disaster strikes, they’ve built a level of trust with voters. Voters want to believe the best about people they like, so, with an apology and full disclosure, such pols may recover. Had President Bill Clinton fully understood this, he might not have lied about Monica Lewinsky under oath; still, once the truth came out, he survived — and now he is beloved by Democrats and respected by Republicans.

In assessing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s effort to squelch the bridge scandal, context is helpful. It is interesting to contrast his performance with different pols who have recently addressed scandals and screw-ups.

The president has never explained his actions on Benghazi, Libya, let alone apologized for them. Hillary Clinton, on a foreign trip, briefly took “responsibility” for the Benghazi debacle, without explaining precisely what she was taking responsibility for or sitting through a press grilling. She hollered at the lawmakers trying to get to the bottom of it (“What difference does it make?”). Her internal accountability review board didn’t even bother to question her. All around, it was a shabby example of buck-passing.

Even worse was the lie of the year, as some fact-checkers put it. The White House and its liberal sycophants first denied that “If you like your insurance you can keep it” was a problem, let alone a lie. Then Obama tried to restyle what he had said, adding caveats he had not previously used. Then he gave a defensive and unforthcoming interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd. Only after multiple news cycles did the president hold a press conference. And even then he did not give a forthright apology for dissembling, personally apologize or meet with those adversely affected. He has fired no one. This is Obama at his worst, but it’s not an isolated instance.

On the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) targeting of political foes, his White House counsel said it was her job to keep misdeeds and brewing scandals away from the president. (That alone speaks volume about how these people “lead.”) He never apologized to those targeted, nor did he say anyone in the White House (especially him) was responsible. A “rogue” IRS office, it was called. In a flagrant display of hypocrisy, liberal media accuse Christie of creating an atmosphere of bullying that led to the bridge misconduct while deriding the idea that Obama’s bare-knuckles politics of personal destruction could have prompted the targeting of right-wing groups.

In Virginia, Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) repeated that he had broken no state reporting rules and taken no improper gifts. After the scandal swirled for some time, he finally confessed and apologized. He never explained if he knew and misled voters or was left in the dark by his wife. Unlike Christie, McDonnell derived (or tried to derive) personal benefit from his donor’s largess. He never presented himself to the media for a full grilling, as Christie did.

I go through all this because the common pattern for politicians and their damage-control teams is to deny, obfuscate, fight back, blame others (as Obama has done for his entire presidency), confess only when cornered and then offer a fake apology (“I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me” was a classic evasion meant to deflect blame).

Then we come to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. He broke virtually every pattern of political scandal. He talked endlessly, answering the media’s repetitious and tough queries for about two hours. He explained how he learned and when he learned about the bridge shenanigans, but repeated that he was sorry, responsible, embarrassed and ashamed. He fired a longtime political adviser (imagine Hillary Clinton firing Cheryl Mills or Obama firing Eric Holder) plus a top staffer. Unlike the White House, which used and overused executive privilege in Fast and Furious, Christie’s administration is telling staff to bear all and cooperate with investigations. Unlike Hillary Clinton, Christie did not set up a patsy internal review, but rather is letting the legislature do its work. Unlike Clinton, who dispatched fixer Cheryl Mills to tell State Department employees not to cooperate with congressional overseers, Christie is encouraging state investigators to do their job.

In Christie’s case, it has paid dividends, as significant conservative observers (many of whom are quite critical in other cases), including Bill Kristol, Hugh Hewitt, Brit Hume, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, the Wall Street Journal editorial board and multiple contributors to National Review Online, praised his performance, predicting that he would be unharmed if he told the truth. (The hard right, which has made known its distaste for him, was obviously unmoved by his apology, but the hard right also thought the shutdown was a success.) Christie was rewarded with a gracious response (eventually) from the mayor of Fort Lee, a Democrat, who said the meeting he initially didn’t want was productive and that he believed Christie.

Christie was lucky, in a sense. (I’m sure he and his staff don’t think so). The scandal emerged after his reelection and well before he or other major contenders will announce potential presidential runs. He also has the benefit of the comparison to Obama and Clinton, which is so blatant that even mainstream media commenters must acknowledge it. (The liberal media’s indifference to Obama’s scandals and their determination to exonerate the president from any responsibility provide stark, even comedic, contrast to the media frenzy that preceded Christie’s press conference.) In some sense, the frenzy and the liberal hype also played to the governor’s advantage. No one remotely interested in the issue could have been unaware of his profuse apologies and refusal to play the blame game.

People who didn’t like him before (lefty bloggers who are all too aware he’d be an effective candidate, White House water-carriers who made every excuse under the sun for Obama’s scandals, right-wingers who loathe the idea of a mainstream Republican who doesn’t revile government) naturally assert that this episode will fatally damage him and that his performance on Thursday was inadequate. (I suspect there is a little bit of apology envy on the left’s part, given the president’s abysmal handling of the “keep your insurance” fiasco.) There is no arguing with them because they are driven by an agenda, not observation. (Even David Axelrod was honest enough to tweet that Christie did as well as possible and is likely to survive.)

Three things are key to assessing Christie’s ability to weather this:

• First, like Bill Clinton, will he continue to do the people’s business, reminding them he has been a successful policymaker?

• Second, will he benefit from the time interval between now and the start of the presidential primaries to bring this to a conclusion and still grab second-term victories?

• Third, will voters see and appreciate the contrast between how ordinary pols behave and how Christie acts?

The latter is the most important of these, but, of course, the overriding issue is whether he told the truth on Jan. 9. (If he didn’t, he is done for but should win an acting award.) That trumps everything. For better or worse, there will be a completed legislative investigation and U.S. attorney’s investigation by the time the presidential race gets underway. If those inquests essentially back up his story and find no instance of his own wrongdoing, he’ll survive and maybe benefit (not only in the minds of voters, but in learning a big lesson in humility). This, in retrospect, will look like Richard Nixon’s checkers speech, which saved his place on the ticket and earned him an outpouring of public support. Christie certainly will be able to tell primary voters he can survive a media storm.

For now, anyone who says they know for sure how this will turn out is spinning. The real answer is “It depends. . . .

We do know that Christie has more raw political talent and stamina than any politician since Bill Clinton. (The liberal spinners and perpetually anti-Christie right-wingers will refuse to acknowledge this, but that’s par for the course.) He is neither passive nor stiff. He “gets” the modern media obsession with feelings, self-reflection and confession. We will have to wait to find out whether he is, unlike Bill Clinton, also truthful. On that, his future and the GOP 2016 election will ride.