The George Washington Bridge scandal disclosures contain so much evidence of malfeasance that, despite an incredible amount of uncertainty over motive and culpability, conservatives are left to defend Chris Christie by taking a meta-view of the whole affair. And we're not talking about random right-wingers on social media, but leading GOP message movers as well.
"You'll notice we haven't been hearing a lot from the Clinton camp about this," Karl Rove said puzzlingly on Fox News Sunday. "The contrast with President Clinton and Secretary Clinton's handling of Benghazi. So I think it's going to be hard for Democrats to turn this into an issue ... the amount of attention paid to Chris Christie makes the coverage of Benghazi, at the same time, the coverage of the IRS, pale in significance."
On ABC's "This Week," former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani took a similar tack. "Things go wrong in an administration. And frankly, you know, [President Obama] was in campaign-mode at the time, during campaign-mode you miss a lot of things. You’re not paying as much attention. We see that with Benghazi.”
If the George Washington Bridge scandal were a phony scandal -- or even if there were a narrow sense in which it could be interpreted as a phony scandal -- conservatives would be calling it a phony scandal. By defending Christie with ad hominem attacks on President Obama and Hillary Clinton, conservatives are implicitly acceding that the scandal is real.
If that's all they have then I expect that as new details emerge, we'll hear much more of the same. Why didn't the media treat Benghazi and the IRS "scandals" the same way they're treating the bridge scandal? Why won't Obama and Clinton be as forthcoming about Benghazi as Christie has been about this?
The basic idea is to prevent the bridge story from reigniting a stigma of scandal the Republican Party has been trying to escape since the final years of George W. Bush's second term. Scandals are just an inevitable part of governance, by their own lights, but at least when Republicans are at the helm they give a damn about accountability.
Other writers have already made the simple but crucial point that for the meta argument to withstand scrutiny, the Obama "scandals" would have to be real. But they're not real. So it's an inherently dishonest tactic. And, at the risk of being accused of concern trolling, I think this it's also unlikely to work, for three reasons.
Let's start with the deceit. Conservatives can't neutralize the Christie scandal unless the public broadly believes the Obama administration is mired in scandal itself. Obviously tons of conservatives believe this. And plenty of conservative writers and activists are happy to treat Benghazi and IRS scrutiny of political nonprofits as scandals. But the public is actually quite divided over these stories, in a way they aren't over the Christie scandal, largely because the accusations lack merit.
Conservatives can (and do) whine that the problem here is media bias -- that the media largely ignored IRS and Benghazi then swarmed over the Christie story because he's a Republican. The scientific term for this argument is "bullshit." The media interrogated both stories intensely, and the only reason they've moved on is that after months of reporting they found no evidence of scandal. Real issues that need to be addressed? Sure. But no scandal.
Attacking the journalists digging into the bridge scandal for not succumbing to politically motivated efforts to scandalize the Obama administration isn't going to retrain their focus on to Benghazi and the IRS. It's going to make them smell a rat.
Second, meta whining like this is super lame. Liberals spent approximately 90 percent of their time during the Bush years whining about how if Democrats did the kinds of things Republicans did, Republicans would be outraged. In many instances this was true. But it's also incredibly pathetic to complain about how the other guys do politics better than you. By the same token, conservatives defending Christie by complaining about the media or implying that Democrats would've addressed a screw-up like this less responsibly might be making themselves feel better, but they're also spewing sour grapes.
The biggest drawback, though, is that the bridge scandal is still unfolding, and unfolding very rapidly. It features a large and growing cast of characters. It could get much, much worse for Christie, and if it does, nobody will have much patience for, "WHAT ABOUT BENGHAZI?!" and other off-point retorts.
Salon alum Steve Kornacki provided the best, most thorough analysis of where the next shoe is most likely to drop on MSNBC Sunday morning. It's all still quite speculative, but a follow-the-money theory of the scandal fits the facts much, much better than the notion that it was an act of amateur, disproportionate retribution for the absence of an endorsement that Chris Christie apparently never cared about in the first place.
If that were really the beginning and end of it -- if the lane closures were orchestrated by Christie underlings without his knowledge to create a political problem for a fairly obscure Democratic mayor -- then conservatives could perhaps neutralize charges of incompetence by invoking Healthcare.gov. The failure there wasn't intentional and malicious like the lane closures, but Obama's obliviousness to the mess brewing right under his nose bears some resemblance to Christie's innocence plea last week. But if conservatives really believe that the traffic in Fort Lee scandal is a story of hapless operatives acting out Sorkin-esque revenge fantasies, then I have a bri- … oh never mind.