Necessary Corruption

What do people care about? There’s no good answer to that. Out here, the Golden Globes were a big deal – the “fizzy, feel-good alternative to the sober valediction of March’s Academy Awards, where, unlike the Oscars, champagne flows and stars aggressively schmooze between speeches” – but then this is Hollywood, where everyone’s morning copy of the Los Angeles Times has full-page display ads telling Academy members which films they should vote for when it’s time to send in the Oscar ballots. Some Sunday mornings there’s an insert with a DVD – this is an industry town. The rest of America seems far away, because we have our peculiar scandals too. This time it was the local police raiding the home of the infinitely irritating Justin Bieber in search of evidence of felony vandalism. It seems he egged his neighbor’s house and did some serious damage. That must have been a lot of eggs. The town was abuzz, but young stars of limited talent misbehaving are nothing new out here. The eggs, however, were a nice touch. That’s a new one. The rest of the talk this week will be about box office returns, and whether American Idol, about to begin its thirteenth season, can pull out of its death-spiral. No one seems to care about that show anymore. Network executives are worried.

No one out here is thinking about politics, and they’re certainly not thinking about New Jersey politics, even if it’s Chris Christie all day, all the time, in the national media. Yeah, he could be our next president, but that really does seem less likely now. His folks did shut down access from northern Jersey to the George Washington Bridge for four or five days last September, to punish his political enemies for not properly participating in his November landslide victory, or over a dispute about a state supreme court justice, or over a billion dollar development project where a lot of contracts for his friends were at stake, or something. No one’s quite sure, but hundreds of thousands of the locals found their lives severely disrupted, for no reason. They didn’t do anything. Christie’ staff was just gleefully sticking it to politicians who were now on their enemies list, by making life miserable for the constituents of those politicians, and that didn’t seem very presidential. The last president who decided to use the entire apparatus of the government to stick it to his enemies was Richard Nixon, and that didn’t work out well – and even Nixon didn’t decide to punish innocent bystanders to make his point. This bridge business wasn’t just nasty – it was gratuitously nasty, or pointlessly nasty.

Christie apologized – he knew nothing of this and fired the people who did the deed. Enough has been said about his epic two-hour press conference where he kept saying he was sad and humiliated and embarrassed, and that he’d been betrayed and all the rest. He was being bold and refreshingly honest, or he was whining about how hard his life had been and it just wasn’t fair – take your choice. He then gave his annual State of the State Address – his people had done stupid and unforgivable things, and he wished he had been paying attention but he’s a busy man, but those people are all gone now and it won’t happen again, so let’s move on. The speech was about education and tax rates and whatnot – he had declared the whole bridge thing over.

Did anyone care about this in the first place, or do they care about it now? Politico has the polling data:

The Pew Research Center poll reports that 60 percent of adults say their opinion of Christie has not changed since revelations that top aides were involved in politically motivated lane closures on the George Washington Bridge. Only 16 percent of those surveyed say they now view the New Jersey governor less favorably and 6 percent say they now view him more favorably.

What’s more, only 18 percent of those surveyed say they paid very close attention to the nearly two-hour long press conference on Jan. 9 in which Christie apologized for his aides’ actions.

This was not a big deal, or like American Idol, it’s not a big deal any longer:

Even in New Jersey, where constituents are likely paying much closer attention than national viewers, Christie does not appear to have been hit particularly hard by the barrage of negative press he’s received since the controversy broke last week.

A Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press poll shows that while Christie’s approval rating has dropped 6 percentage points in light of the scandal, his approval still stands at 59 percent.

In that same poll, only one-third of New Jerseyans think Christie was personally involved in the decision to close lanes of traffic on the bridge. Fifty-two percent of Garden Staters say they don’t think Christie was involved. Only 30 percent of those following the story say they now trust Christie less, while two-thirds say their level of trust hasn’t changed.

The man can still run for president. Justin Bieber, the David Cassidy of this generation, can still sing bubble-gum pop and make a ton of money. This bridge story doesn’t have legs, and at the Washington Post, Michael Gerson puts it this way:

There is something inherently absurd about a political scandal resulting from an event that could also have been caused by a stray deer and a truck filled with watermelons.

No, that would have been a few hours of gridlock at the bridge, not five long days of it. Political writers sometimes need to be dramatic, even if they don’t make sense, but Gerson has a larger point to make:

Christie’s news conference was a model of crisis management. He accepted responsibility without admitting culpability. He apologized while maintaining he was a victim. I can’t recall a political figure who has done the scandal drill – mistakes were made, heads will roll – any better.

In the pre-primary primary, this is actually a qualification. Presidential candidates, who are often human beings, have been known to face draft-record controversies, bimbo eruptions, early DUI revelations, drug-use allegations, questions about discreditable pastoral associations and the like. The successful ones share Christie’s talent for crisis containment.

Don’t think too hard about what this has to do with Obama and Jeramiah Wright, who wasn’t working for Obama and wasn’t using the levers of government to make life miserable for hundreds of thousands of people. There’s not much there, but Gerson does see Christie as our next president, because he fired people he shouldn’t have trusted:

It is honestly hard to imagine that such political operatives would have been capable of carrying Christie to the presidency… Some in Christie’s circle of trust were not worthy of trust. Though he asserts, “I am not a bully,” he apparently employed some bullies.

This is the reason that the bridge scandal is more than a test of crisis management; it is now a test of whether Christie can build a political team worthy of his 2016 presidential ambitions (assuming, I think safely, that he has them).

In short, this was a learning experience for Christie. He’s now ready to be president. This is not a story about a fat New Jersey bully, just another nasty political boss, or the story of a would-be thug who generally has no clue about what is going on around him and ends up whining a lot. This is about our next president. Pay attention, folks!

Assuming Christie is not impeached – an actual possibility – the man will remain in the news, as the Republican frontrunner, and Kevin Drum summarizes the Republican talking points on this:

Hey, at least Christie came clean with his manly press conference and his decisive firing of Bridget Anne Kelly. That’s more than Obama has ever done.

It’s nowhere near as bad as Benghazi or the IRS scandal.

That’s about it, and Drum isn’t sure that will work:

It’s obviously pretty puerile, only slightly more sophisticated than your average kindergarten playground comeback, but my guess is that it doesn’t matter. Pretty much any reaction will work if the scandal doesn’t get any worse and no evidence pops up that implicates Christie himself. Conversely, no amount of agitprop will work if it turns out that Christie knew more about this than he’s letting on. This is a scandal in which the messaging campaign just doesn’t matter. All that matters is what crawls out when more rocks start getting turned over.

Jonathan Chait argues that it’s more serious than that:

There are now two ongoing investigations into alleged abuses of power, each of which is potentially fatal. Even if neither produces further damaging allegations, they both have already yielded enough public information to be used against him. Beyond that, there is a long list of potential scandals dating back to before his governorship. The odds that any one of them develops into something indictable are high.

And they’re not just high in the mathematical sense that a person who gets shot at a bunch of times is more likely to be hit by a bullet. They’re high because the high number of scandals surrounding Christie, and the pattern of gleefully using his power to punish his foes, suggests that at least some of the allegations against him are true. The odds of any scandal striking pay dirt are not mathematically independent. The deeper problem is simply that Christie appears to be genuinely corrupt on a scale that is rare for a modern top-tier presidential candidate.

The scandals don’t kill Christie’s chance in the sense that Republican voters will read the news stories and decide irrevocably they can never vote for the man. The way it works is to create a series of liabilities that his opponents can easily exploit: regional (an untrustworthy Northeastern political boss), personal (the traitor who hugged President Obama and thereby handed him the election), and ideological (gun-controlling, Obamacare-surrendering moderate).

Drum then adds another short list of factors, this time about why Christie will never be president:

He’s very, very attackable. The ads practically write themselves. Neither his fellow Republicans nor his eventual Democratic opponent will be shy about exploiting this.

He’s fat. I know that’s not fair, but it’s not fair that Obama is black or Hillary is a woman, either. It’s a liability regardless of whether it’s fair.

His bullying of random citizens can seem vaguely like a breath of fresh air when you see it occasionally and from a distance. But if you see it up close, all the time – as you will during a presidential campaign – it won’t wear well.

He has too many non-conservative positions. Mitt Romney did too, and even though he spent years disowning his earlier self and prostrating himself to the tea party, conservatives still never really trusted him. Christie isn’t the kind of guy who’s even willing to do that much – and that means the Republican base will be even less inclined to trust him.

This is hopeless:

I could see Christie winning if the country were undergoing some kind of horrific disaster, like the Great Depression. In a case like that, it’s possible that Americans would just want someone who’d kick all the right asses and wouldn’t much care about the other stuff. But 2016 seems likely to be a fairly ordinary year, with a decent economy and no huge foreign crises. If that’s how it turns out, I have a hard time seeing how Christie manages to win.

Drum doesn’t seem to remember we did have a president who, after a national horrific disaster, kicked all the right asses and didn’t much care about the other stuff – George Bush. He kicked Saddam Hussein’s ass real good, but that turned out to be the wrong ass, and the stuff he didn’t much care about was Katrina and the financial system. Everything went wrong, so kicking ass and not sweating the details has its limits, and any bullying of random citizens is always a problem. Do you want a president who has a staff that might just shut down all air-traffic control over California because Jerry Brown said something sarcastic about him? And Christie does appear to be genuinely corrupt on a scale that is rare for a modern top-tier presidential candidate. He’s new and exciting, like getting punched in the face by the actual Mike Tyson, an interesting guy to be sure – but you still get punched in the face.

David Plotz, the editor of Slate, sees things differently, seeing that Christie, right now, just can’t be himself:

Christie can’t be Christie anymore. That’s because, after you scrape away the thick layers of Democratic gloating, conservative schadenfreude, and media glee, there is general agreement that what the New Jersey governor and his people have been doing is deplorable. He’s already apologized abjectly for the George Washington Bridge lane closures. New reports suggest Christie and his top officials also canceled meetings with Jersey City’s Democratic Mayor Steve Fulop after Fulop declined to endorse Christie’s re-election bid this summer. Good-government types have greeted each new revelation with a sigh of satisfied disappointment. Oh, the gambling that goes on here in Casablanca!

Having governed by intimidation, punishment, cronyism, patronage, and legal forms of corruption, Christie is now unmanned. He has renounced Satan and all his works, given up his ability to kneecap and to bribe.

Plotz considers that a shame, because we may need someone who is genuinely corrupt on a scale that is rare for a modern top-tier presidential candidate:

American politics is a broken horror, particularly at the national level, not because politicians are too dirty, but because they’re not nearly dirty enough. Children need to eat dirt to develop immunological resistance that protects them from allergies and disease as they grow up. Something similar is true in politics: Minor forms of corruption – votes bought with earmarks, traded favors – create a political flexibility that keeps the entire system from collapsing in moments of crisis.

The argument here is that a little corruption is good for America, or a lot of it, because our modern politicians have forgotten how politics works:

The controlling conservative wing of the Republican Party is addicted to principle. If politics is the art of compromise, we have a huge number of elected officials who are not politicians at all but rather zealots animated by ideology. This consistency – so admirable in a campaign ad – makes governing and legislation nearly impossible.

A case in point is the House ban on earmarks, a proud achievement of the Boehner majority for the past four years. Grubby and inefficient, earmarks decorate the country with misplaced bridges and idiotic museums. But evidence suggests they also make political compromises possible. The less than one percent of federal spending that went to earmarks bought goodwill and deal-making that lubricated Washington. Earmarks – a bribe, essentially- gave politicians cover to vote against their political interests, in support of someone else’s agenda. Think of President Obama buying support for his stimulus with a $10 billion pet project for Arlen Specter, or LBJ’s entire quid pro quo presidency. On the flip side: The earmark ban made it impossible for Democrats to buy enough votes to pass last year’s gun bill.

In short, we need a nasty and unprincipled guy like Chris Christie right about now:

Democrats and Republicans rail about the corruption of Washington, about backroom deals and “Chicago-style” politics. But there are no backrooms anymore, just green rooms. And we should be so lucky to have Chicago-style politics in D.C. Instead we have a gritty political system, one without tools to do much of anything.

The man is the cure, not the disease:

Political machines made some American cities work (with an asterisk) for a century. The machine style still animates some cities and states, most visibly Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago. The premise of Chris Christie’s presidential campaign is that he would bring New Jersey–style politics to Washington. The generous interpretation of that: He has an ability to work with Democrats in New Jersey, so he would do the same in Washington. The reality: He has an ability to work with Democrats in New Jersey because he’s willing to bribe, mug, and hug them to get what he wants, so wouldn’t it be nice if he could do the same in Washington?

Plotz may be being a bit tongue-in-cheek here, but he actually is serious, and he’s also disappointed in Chris Christie too:

The closing of the George Washington Bridge lanes was so stupid, so heavy-handed – so public. They got caught! Christie and his people have given a bad name to a kind of politics that Americans should crave.

What you want is a corrupt politician who’s good at being corrupt, not someone who’d snarl some traffic purposely, endangering random people, to achieve the pettiest kind of payback. You don’t screw up everything “for a petty and vicious comeuppance” – the idea is to get something back for being a total prick and a bully. That’s how things work here:

Some political systems, such as the incorruptible and efficient Scandinavian ones, can thrive without “dirty hands.” But ours can’t. In a country as diverse, unequal, and divided as the United States, citizens disagree about how to build roads, levy taxes, and educate children, and so do the people they elect to represent them. Legalized bribery – a judgeship for my low-IQ college roommate in exchange for a vote for your dumb charter school plan – helps keep it all going (and legalized punishment: Vote for my dumb charter school plan, or we start investigating your roommate’s “business”).

Plotz, however, does realize being pro-corruption seems odd, but argues a little more corruption would be all that bad:

Petty corruption isn’t necessarily in the public interest. Not every act of political thuggery is in the service of passing the Civil Rights Act. Christie, in particular, seems to have doled out punishment for political reasons, rather than in pursuit of major policy goals.

But done right, corruption helps create a government that gets things done. Americans aspire to clean politics. But clean politics has given us a national government that doesn’t work. We need to get a little bit grubbier.

Plotz may be right. After eight years of Obama asking if we can all reason together to get at least a few things done, with no real levers of power to get anything done, and with the Republicans sneering at him, to please their base in the hopes of getting reelected, maybe it’s time for threats and bribery and nastiness. The Christie bumper sticker practically writes itself – CHRISTIE: CORRUPTION DONE RIGHT!

It’s too bad the man is not very good at it. You don’t do nasty things for no good reason at all, and you don’t get caught, ever – ask Justin Bieber. Still this Christie stuff is still dominating the news, except out here in Hollywood. What do people care about? They care about something useful being done, and despair. They end up watching American Idol anyway.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Necessary Corruption

  1. Rick says:

    This David Plotz “corruption” stuff really annoys me.

    “Legalized bribery – a judgeship for my low-IQ college roommate in exchange for a vote for your dumb charter school plan – helps keep it all going…”

    So what do we, the people, get out of that sort of corruption? A bunch of low-IQ judges who are so stupid, they dole out injustice instead of justice, and a bunch of useless charter schools who fail to educate our children. And in what way is this good?

    “But done right, corruption helps create a government that gets things done.”

    This idea that “corruption” can be “done right” really pisses me off, because although it’s tempting to be for it, it is, on closer analysis, total bullshit.

    How do we insure that corruption is only wielded in the service of passing bills that we think ought to be passed, like gun control or civil rights? Remember, not everyone agrees these laws are good things, and could just as easily use corruption to keep them from being passed. After all, once you get a citizenry believing there’s nothing wrong with corruption, then what’s to keep them from just opting out of democracy?

    We need to be enacting laws that do good things and that people want, instead of taking a chance that bad government will somehow magically give us something we really need, other than just paying back some campaign contributor — which seems much more likely.

    And that argument that, if anything, Christie’s bridge gambit shows him to be not sufficiently competent at corruption reminds me of all those Republican revisionist historians calling Watergate nothing but a “third-rate burglary” — the point presumably being that they had no problem with the Watergate burglars being burglars, but that they could all be forgiven since they just weren’t very good at it.

    The real problem with the Tea Party ideologues in Washington is not that they believe in their cause and can’t be bought, it’s that they don’t believe in the American system of government, as described in our Constitution, which allow that We, the People — all of us! — get our way in the kind of country our country will be.

    And another reason our government can’t get anything that we want done (more gun control being just one of many things that polls show as overwhelmingly popular) is not because of not enough corruption, it’s because there is so much corruption that we allow a minority of people with money (think the NRA, and also the very, very rich) to trump the will of the people.

    I suppose there is that argument, that the ban on “earmarks” has removed one tool from Obama’s toolbox, making it harder to buy votes for the things he needs to pass his agenda, but that same argument highlights the major weakness of a system of governance that leaves us with a land filled with incumbents getting reelected by building all those local bridges-to-nowhere, and yet one that still does little if anything to stop someone from legally buying a gun to shoot some school kid.

    And let’s go back to this:

    “Some political systems, such as the incorruptible and efficient Scandinavian ones, can thrive without ‘dirty hands.’ But ours can’t. In a country as diverse, unequal, and divided as the United States, citizens disagree about how to build roads, levy taxes, and educate children, and so do the people they elect to represent them.”

    And so what? Sure, citizens “disagree”, but almost inevitably more citizens prefer one solution over another, and that’s why we vote! We don’t give all that up and decide to hand our governance over to political thugs like Chris Christie, just because democracy is difficult.

    Yeah, it may be Boring with a capital “B”, but give me that Scandinavian-style “incorruptible and efficient” government, any day.

    Rick

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