Judging from the steady stream of YouTube videos and news clips they are sending out, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s staffers are reveling in their counterpunching mode. There is good reason for them to be.
They have essentially silenced Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who has decided to creep back into obscurity after her credibility was pummeled by Democrats and Republicans alike. The Jersey Journal reports: “Mayor Dawn Zimmer is clamming up about Gov. Chris Christie. Zimmer, who on Saturday alleged that Christie’s administration withheld Hurricane Sandy relief funds because the mayor wouldn’t support a politically connected development in the city’s north end, today said she’s no longer speaking to the media about the scandal. This is after at one appearance on MSNBC last Saturday, when she first aired her claims, and two on CNN, the last one on Monday night. She declined to speak to Fox News.” She is crying uncle now. (“But her lips are sealed from now on, Zimmer, a Democrat, said in a statement she issued this morning.”)
That wouldn’t have happened without a parade of Democratic mayors disputing her account. Nor would Christie be getting some right-wing support had the mainstream media been able to restrain itself. There are a few takeaways from the last few days.
First, it pays to have inept opponents and overreaching critics, as President Bill Clinton found out during his impeachment ordeal. Sometimes the gang who can’t shoot straight winds up discrediting the inquest instead of pinning down the accused politician. In jumping to conclusions — even subpoenaing the wrong person and leaping to accuse an innocent staffer — the accused gains credibility in describing the ordeal as a partisan witch hunt. It was therefore fortunate for Christie that the first post-bridge accuser was so flaky and easily rebutted.
Second, this is not, obviously, just about Dawn Zimmer. The Christie team doesn’t want a series of accusations, even patently silly ones, floating around. The tactic seems to be to try to set new ground rules with the media: If you run with a phony story we’ll push back twice as hard. No one need pick up the phone (as many politician’s staffers do) to holler at a reporter or editor; instead ripping false witnesses and sloppy journalism for days sends a clearer message to the press.
Call this the not-Mitt Romney approach. If you recall, in the summer of 2012 the Obama campaign warriors flooded swing states with half-baked accusations about Romney’s business deals, taxes and the like. There were more than satisfactory responses available (No, he didn’t outsource jobs.). But passivity allowed the accusations to build and a negative portrayal take root. The goose was cooked in the Midwest before the summer was out. The Christie team has therefore internalizing the truism that accusations against a Republican, no matter how flaky, stick unless fully and quickly rebutted.
Third, the scandal and firing of top staffers gives Christie an opportunity, when he needs to form a campaign team, to bring in new blood, professionalize the operation and lift a presidential staff above the Jersey crew that landed him in the soup. Certainly, he will bring with him the advisors who’ve proven their value. But even though, as he says, he is a “loyal guy,” the episode will put a premium on vetting and selecting only the best of his existing circle. (Guessing from the counterpunching assault that will probably include his quick-response team.)
And, finally, if he never gave his staff the Caesar’s wife speech (you need to be above suspicion since the political world will be targeting us), he surely has by now. And that, too, should impress upon other contenders and their staffs the adage “If you don’t want to read about it on the front pages, don’t do it.”) Politics isn’t bean ball, but if you want to be president you better have a clean (or recently cleaned) house and an operation that knows not to step over the line.