The Sept 2013 George Washington Bridge Scandal is back in the news today. And it is a good time to revisit what makes a true scandal and what doesn’t.
In politics and in media, there are people screaming “scandal” every single day. Most of the time, it is just noise. Occasionally, someone goes to prison and there is a true scandalous ending to a career.
But other times, there is no prison, conviction or even indictment; yet there is still a career ending scandal.
Chris Christie’s bridge scandal is one of those non-indictment career ending scandals.
First, here are some ground rules. If your enemies and your opponents in the media are attacking you for issues that don’t resonate with your supporters, it’s not a scandal that will have any traction. For example, Mitt Romney getting caught on secret video writing off the bottom 47% of voters in 2012 wasn’t a true scandal, because all the polls showed his supporters and likely supporters didn’t care about it. Similarly, the Hillary/Benghazi scandal is a non-scandal because the only people who think it is a big issue are people who are already Hillary haters.
The Christie bridge scandal was and is truly different.
Pre-Bridge scandal, Christie lead many national polls when people were asked who they supported for President in 2016. A huge, huge part of his support came from moderates and independents who believed that Christie was a different sort of Republican. His image was that of a no-nonsense, no-political game playing leader who focused on getting results and good government and was not the typical New Jersey politician practiced in the crafts of dirty tricks and political retribution. Above all, Christie projected the image of a highly competent manager.
The problem with the Bridge scandal is that even if there are no indictments of Christie, his fundamental image is destroyed no matter how you interpret events.
Either you believe Christie knew of the bridge closing in advance and even ordered it, thus proving him to be a crass, corrupt political machine hack, thus disqualifying him from national office, or he didn’t.
But if Christie didn’t know about the bridge closing in advance and was just the unwitting pawn of evil henchmen, it means that Christie is a spectacularly bad manager with poor judgment on hiring and managing staff; also a disqualifying factor in aspiring presidents.
Either way, Christie has destroyed his reputation with a good 25% of the electorate. That 25% has gone from very favorable toward Christie to highly negative toward Christie, and that puts Christie in career-ending negative territory.
That’s why Christie’s presidential campaign prospects are a joke and why he will never be considered for higher office again. For some scandals, there is simply no spinning your way out of them
TJ Walker is a crisis communications expert. You can reach him at www.mediatraiingworldwide.com and at 212.764.4955.