Last weekend, "Up With Steve Kornacki" featured a remarkable report involving a very serious accusation: That New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's administration threatened to withhold hurricane relief money from the city of Hoboken unless its mayor signed off on a redevelopment project involving a politically connected developer. That's the story told by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who offered her diary as supporting evidence, along with emails between the city and the law firm representing the developer -- a firm founded by David Samson, a Christie ally and the Christie-appointed chairman of the Port Authority. Zimmer also met with federal prosecutors and turned over her journal and other documents related to the accusation. She's offered to testify under oath and take a lie detector test.
Joe Scarborough thinks she is a liar. He thinks this because he likes Chris Christie a lot, mostly, but also because Zimmer said nice things about Christie on Twitter not long ago. Scarborough sort of browbeat Kornacki (who is, full disclosure, my former editor, and a friend) on the supposed contradictions he found in Zimmer's account, which mainly involve her having written mean things about Christie in her diary while having publicly said nice things about Christie.
"How can you say that [Christie has done "great things for the state of New Jersey"] and still be consistent with 'he has a corrupt administration?'" Scarborough asked. It's actually common enough to be both corrupt and effective, and indeed that has been the formula that allowed most of the more successful political machines throughout history to thrive for as long as they did. New York Gov. Al Smith was a product of Tammany Hall and a champion of workers' rights. Huey Long taught 100,000 adult Louisianans to read.
Scarborough's primary complaint is that "everyone" (meaning, I think, Kornacki and Zimmer's interviewer on CNN) has been taking Zimmer's story at "face value," and not asking any "tough questions." He further argues that, if he had been in her position, he would've responded by immediately phoning a U.S. attorney, or even by phoning the governor himself. "I wouldn't go running off and writing in my diary." (The very word "diary" sounds like a slur in Scarborough's mouth. A diary! How feminine.)
"Why didn't she come forward earlier" is not a very interesting or damning question when you think about the circumstances for a minute or two. Christie is the most powerful man in New Jersey, he has already shown himself to be vindictive, and he just got reelected. Hoboken's mayor would need to preserve a working relationship with the man if she wanted her city to get the support from the state that she believed it was entitled to. As long as Hoboken needed help and Christie's people controlled the purse strings, there was no angle in going to the press, to Christie himself, or even to a U.S. attorney. As for coming out with this now? Well, now people are more likely to actually believe her. A few weeks ago this guy was basically worshiped by the national political press. Every allegation of patronage or political malfeasance ever thrown at him had doggedly refused to stick. (Is it any wonder the guy's appointees and staffers were so brazen? Nothing they did ever came back to hurt their boss.) It's not hard to imagine that no one would've taken her accusations seriously before "Bridgegate" exploded.
Today, Scarborough compared the inquiries into Christie's administration to the right's response to the attack on the Benghazi diplomatic mission. "It reminds me what people did on Benghazi the second after the Benghazi attack," he said. Then he said, "I’m not equating the two." Then he said, "it’s just like Benghazi on the right."
One person who has been pleased with Scarborough's skeptical coverage of his scandal involving his personal friend Chris Christie is the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin, who has begun writing about Christie the same way she once wrote about Mitt Romney. Rubin's Jan. 16 headline: "Christie moves on." He tried to, I guess. On Saturday, when the Zimmer accusations were reported on Kornacki's show, Rubin responded with a furious post accusing MSNBC of journalistic malfeasance, claiming the channel had "decided to throw even the pretense of journalism overboard." She ran a written statement by Christie and repeatedly claimed that MSNBC hadn't done any reporting at all, in a story that involved a hell of a lot more reporting than is usually seen on cable news. On Jan. 20, she approvingly cited Scarborough: "Even MSNBC’s own Joe Scarborough echoed Christie’s claim that MSNBC had gone over the top," she wrote. By yesterday she was just praising his inaugural speech as his "first 2016 stump speech."
Rubin and Scarborough each need Christie, for different reasons.
Rubin is a neoconservative, and that seemingly discredited group still has a great deal of influence over the Republican Party, even in the Sen. Rand Paul era. They -- Rubin, Bill Kristol, Fred Barnes, et al. -- are concerned foremost with ensuring that the GOP not waver in its commitment to a belligerent foreign policy, especially toward Iran. They are secondarily concerned with electability. Rubin is not particularly interested in the domestic conservative agenda -- a fact that her conservative detractors have long harped on when criticizing the Washington Post's use of her as an in-house conservative -- which made it easier to embrace Romney, and then Rubio, and now Christie. They're all pretty malleable fellows, happy to adopt whatever the current hawkish Republican position is.
Neoconservative foreign policy, though, is not particularly popular anymore, because of those awful wars we fought for a decade. This is why its adherents plan for the next Republican nominee to be a likable, "moderate"-seeming foreign policy novice, and not a longtime booster with a record of advocating for various interventions. (Here's a good Matt Welch piece on the molding of a blank-slate Republican contender into a vocal interventionist.) Christie fits the bill perfectly, and has shown himself eager to learn.
Scarborough is not a neoconservative. He's a former movement conservative turned television maverick. For Scarborough, Christie is living proof that America is how he imagines it to be: a nation of no-nonsense independents who just care about results, who object to demagogues and reject handouts. Americans want politicians who aren't afraid to make tough decisions, like cutting wildly popular and successful social insurance programs. It is important for people like Scarborough that Christie be a "tough" "reformer" and not an ideologue. Unfortunately, the "moderate" policy agenda, which is very conservative in all its particulars, tends to be deeply unpopular, and so it has to be sold by likable "independent" types who "won't just tell you what you want to hear."
This is why the Republican elite, which encompasses plenty of rich urban Scarboroughs and "muscular foreign policy"-obsessed Rubins, needs so badly for Christie to emerge from all of this unscathed. I still think they'll get their wish.