American readers may be surprised to learn that the Chris Christie “Bridgegate” scandal — in which the New Jersey governor’s subordinates were caught spitefully shutting down two lanes on the George Washington Bridge in order to cause trouble for the Democratic Mayor of Fort Lee, NJ, whose city receives some of the outflow — has been making a lot of news in Canada. Not because there’s any direct Canadian interest involved, but because so many of our journalists have been fascinated by the striking similarities between Bridgegate and the so-called “Senate scandal” that’s enveloped the administration of Prime Minister Harper over the last eight-or-so months.
That analogy doesn’t make a lot of sense on first glance, I realize. Shutting down bridge traffic and paying off a senator — where’s the connection? The answer is style, not substance.
See, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that basically all political scandals can be slotted into one of the following three categories:
#1: the slogan-based scandal (aka: the non-scandal)
Beginning with the least damning, “scandals” of this sort are usually little more than vague assertions of wrongdoing that lack a specific accusation, narrative, or victim — let alone evidence. Brazenly partisan, they’re usually little more than the opposition party desperately trying to tie an incumbent government to some broadly unpopular thing, in the hopes the connection will stick in the minds of voters.
The Benghazi scandal would probably be the left’s leading nominee for this category at the moment. Ever since the Libyan embassy killings back in September of 2012, Republicans have consistently alleged the White House was responsible in some way. Or if not responsible, at least not responsive enough in reaction. Or anticipation. Or something. The point is, when American voters think “Benghazi” they should think “scandal” and then think “Obama,” even if it’s not entirely clear why. The Democrats had plenty of these of their own during the Bush years, of course, particularly the cry of “Haliburton” at any moment their poll numbers seemed to be slumping.
#2: the personal misconduct scandal
These are the easiest to understand, and therefore the most sensationalized by the press. They occur when a politician, particularly a head of government, personally does something bad.
Sex scandals fit into this category. The troubles that embroiled Bill Clinton and Anthony Wiener, for instance, were the result of personal deeds they committed as individuals. The same could be said of Mayor Ford and his caught-on-camera drug use. In all of these cases, the ensuing political debate merely centred around how bad you considered such conduct, since there was no disputing it had occurred, or who did it.
Personal corruption fits into this category, too, though thankfully it tends to be a lot rarer these days. Governor Blagojevich in Illinois got impeached for trying to sell a vacant senate seat to the highest bidder — wiretap recordings revealed him bragging about this, so there wasn’t much ambiguity. The old stereotype of the greasy politician receiving a suitcase full of money in a murky hotel room would be the platonic ideal, but really, any criminal command originating from high office would fit, too.
#3: the underlings scandal
Scandals centring around subordinates are very common, but often don’t cause much lasting damage, because it’s so infuriatingly hard to get them to stick to the people they’re supposed to. They occur when an administration does something bad, but the head of government is protected by a large buffer of plausible deniability in the form of (supposedly) out-of-control staffers.
Last year’s IRS scandal was one of these: the executive branch was revealed to have deliberately targeted Tea Party-aligned activist groups for invasive audits, but President Obama denied any knowledge of the scheme. There’s some hazy evidence suggesting it’s plausible he could have known about it (particularly the fact he met with senior IRS officials a few days before they drafted new, Tea Party-unfriendly rules), but it’s just as plausible he was in the dark.
The grandaddy of scandals of this sort is probably the Iran-Contra mess of the late 1980s. Various characters in the White House were revealed to have conspired to illegally supply weapons to both the Iranian government and Nicaraguan militias, but there was considerable ambiguity regarding how much knowledge the head of the White House — President Reagan — had about it all. If he’d fully known and approved the plot, he probably could have been impeached, but a Congressional investigation concluded it was doubtful he did, so he wasn’t. Underlings were fired, and some went to prison, but the top guy remained unscathed.
In the best (or I guess, worst) case scenario, a Class Three scandal can metamorphosize into a Class Two, once the head of government who so furiously denied awareness of the sins of his subordinates is suddenly implicated by fresh evidence to have known all along — proving him not only a crook, but a liar. This is basically the Watergate model, and the sort of holy grail of scandalousness that makes opposition parties salivate.
Which brings us to Christie and Harper.
The lanes on the George Washington Bridge were closed back in September via a conspiracy between the New Jersey Governor’s deputy chief of staff and the deputy head of the Port Authority. Both were Christie appointees, though Christie claims they acted alone, and in fact actively lied to him when he later inquired about who caused the traffic problems. David Wildstein, the Port Authority bureaucrat, quit back in December when the controversy around his actions was beginning to grow, while Bridget Anne Kelly, the Governor’s aide, was fired last Thursday, following the release of some smoking gun emails. The Jersey legislature has announced it will begin a formal inquiry into Bridgegate, and Christie says he has nothing to hide from them.
Nigel Wright, the Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, cut a $90,000 personal cheque to reimburse the infamously corrupt Senator Mike Duffy, who had been accused of embezzling the same amount from taxpayers, via a number of loophole-exploiting expense filings. Whatever Wright’s intentions, giving such a large sum of money to a politician is illegal under Canadian law, and an RCMP report has since recommended charging both Wright and Duffy with bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Harper appointed both men, but denied knowing of their plot, a claim confirmed by that same RCMP report. Wright was fired back in May when the plot came to light, and the Senate voted to suspend Duffy in November.
Both scandals, in short, are classic Class Three: wrongdoing by subordinates. But, allege the critics, Christie and Harper are also known micromanagers, tyrants, and bullies, which makes the leaders’ complete ignorance of such elaborately vindictive schemes highly out of character — and therefore Class Two-style malfeasance tantalizingly possible.
But while it’s all well and good to gossip suspiciously about “cultures of corruption” in the highest levels of the executive branch, an upgrade in scandalousness can only ultimately occur following a steady, Watergate-style flow of new revelations, compelled by courts or cops or committees. After eight months, Canadians are still waiting for the missing link tying their prime minister to his chief of staff’s payout scheme, while the Jersey folk are just beginning their journey down the path of who-knew-what-when.
In both cases, we are told, the future course of the nation’s leadership may have been irreparably altered — even if neither man is ultimately found responsible for the worst of what was done on his behalf. That’s the funny thing about scandals, after all — an ability to escape guilt isn’t always enough to ensure survival.