Changing the Subject Won't Work

The conservative line on Bridgegate is to invoke Benghazi or the IRS scandal, but that doesn't make any sense. Here’s why.

There’s still a whole host of unresolved questions about Chris Christie’s “Bridgegate,” but it suffices to say that he’s in trouble. His virtuoso press conference aside, it’s still true that key figures in his administration—with or without his direction—crippled traffic on a major bridge for petty political reasons. And given the breadth of this scandal and long-standing questions about Christie’s relationship with the truth, there’s little doubt of further revelations.

To wit, in a segment on yesterday’s edition of MSNBC’s Up (I was a guest), Steve Kornacki connected the lane closings with a $1 billion development project in Fort Lee. At the least, given the available evidence, this will prompt new questions and a renewed look into Christie’s background and dealings. Indeed, a federal agency review into the governor’s use of Hurricane Sandy funds—announced this morning—might be a sign of things to come.

But this hasn’t stopped Christie’s Republican allies from coming to his defense and dismissing “Bridgegate” as a big nothingburger, or at least, no worse than anything we’ve seen from the Obama administration. “I think he did himself a lot of good,” said Karl Rove while discussing the governor’s response on Fox News Sunday, “I think he did himself some good by contrasting with the normal, routine way of handing these things, which is to be evasive, to sort of trim on the edges.”

Rove’s point of comparison? Benghazi. “You’ll notice we haven’t been hearing a lot from the Clinton camp about this,” he said. “Contrast both with Bill Clinton and Secretary Hillary Clinton’s handling of Benghazi.”

Likewise, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani has emerged as a prominent Christie defender, dismissing Bridgegate as analogous to the White House IRS scandal of last spring. “The people in the IRS thought President Obama wanted them to do this. President Obama didn’t want them to do this. But they got the sense because of that culture that they were supposed to target right-wing groups. It was totally wrong,” said Giuliani.

What’s odd about this defense, from Rove and Giuliani, is that it’s not a defense at all. Unless they’ve dismissed Benghazi and the IRS investigations as real scandals, then they’ve all but conceded the seriousness of “Bridgegate.”

The problem is that, outside of the right-wing media, neither Benghazi nor the IRS incident are real scandals. After intensive coverage on both, most reporters and partisan investigators came away empty-handed. They uncovered problems, yes—a directionless and overworked IRS office, a State Department caught off-guard—but nothing like the deliberate retribution and thuggishness we’ve seen from the Christie aides.

Republicans can try to change the subject, but the fact remains that there is something here. There really was an abuse of power from the governor’s office, and there remains a real chance that Christie was aware of it. If that’s true, his political career is over.

Which, it should be said, explains the rhetoric of Rove and others. Even with “Bridgegate”—and the corruption that seems to follow Chris Christie—GOP elites have not abandoned their belief in the pugnacious New Jersey governor, who they see as their ticket to the White House in 2016. And as long as that’s true, we should expect to see a few more of these unconvincing defenses.