The start of any week in Washington is as unpredictable as a Super Bowl. Before Sunday night’s game, everyone thought the Broncos and Seahawks would have a close one and by the third quarter the Seahawks had so dominated the action, it became necessary to thumb through the rule book to see if pro football had a mercy rule. Traffic from Fort Lee, N.J., is more free-flowing than the Broncos offense. Who knows where the week will end up, but here are three questions worth noodling as it starts:
1. Chris Christie: Does going on offense reinforce negative views of the governor? Monday at 7 p.m. Gov. Chris Christie will take to the airwaves for his regular “Ask the Governor” segment. Will he go after his critics in the forceful way his aides have or will he try to stay above the fray?
David Wildstein was the Port Authority official who ordered the lane closings on the George Washington Bridge, so when he says he has a version of events that contradicts Christie, it creates tremors. But Wildstein’s revelations could be damaging or they could be a bluff. We don’t have any evidence yet. Even if we did, the charges he’s apparently leveling don’t go to the big political issue in the scandal: Whether Christie ordered the lane closures as political retribution or whether he knew about it. Wildstein is silent on this point. What he is saying is that he can contradict what Christie has said about the lane closures once they were under way. If there is a discrepancy, that could further damage the governor’s credibility, but right now we wait and see. But Christie isn’t waiting. His team put out an exfoliating attack against Wildstein on Saturday, questioning his motives and charging that he’s simply trying to save his own hide. In questioning his character, they reached back to his high-school years. (So then why was he entrusted with the Port Authority job in the first place?)
The Christie posture since the scandal broke has been to focus on getting work done. There were a few caustic comments from his team about MSNBC’s bias, which broke the story about the Hoboken mayor who says she was pressured to approve a development project, but that’s it. This response to Wildstein is an escalation. If others come forward to protect themselves and receive the same pounding, the pattern of Christie throwing punches at former friends and allies could become politically damaging in itself—particularly if Christie starts engaging in it himself. In attacking the character of former aides it raises questions about why people whose low character was obvious since high school were on your team. It also might convey the overall impression that when the governor is unhappy he goes after those that make him so. That’s a risky impression to court when the larger question is whether the governor knew anything about an overreaction by his political team to a perceived slight.
2. GOP infighting: How fast do we get to questioning motives? There are many dangers to inner-party fights—they waste time, they draw attention from highlighting your opponent’s flaws, and they often don’t lead to productive legislative results. One of the big downsides is when combatants start questioning each other’s motives. That takes a policy debate and turns it into a personal fight where people lock in and get emotional. The resulting attacks hand your opponents powerful sound bites they can use against you.
This is what happened during the government shutdown when Republican senators claimed Sen. Ted Cruz had “tricked the grass roots” to raise his profile for his presidential run. The charge was an insult to grass-roots conservatives, suggesting they were morons to be led around by the nose, and it was an attack on Cruz’s character. When House Speaker John Boehner suggested grass-roots lobbying groups in Washington were fooling the rank and file over the Ryan-Murray budget just to raise money, it was a similar personal attack.
Since then, the skirmishing on the right has been mild. The Ryan-Murray budget, the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill, and the farm bill all passed the House without too much clubhouse fighting. (The ugly personal stuff has been left to Greta Van Susteren and Erick Erickson.) Now comes the conservative conversation about immigration. The issue is so fraught that Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol and the editors of the National Review said Republicans shouldn’t touch it for fear they will waste their energy fighting each other and not exploiting the weaknesses of Obamacare. We know it will be a heated debate, but will it be heated in a debilitating personal way that reignites the full fury of the personal war between the populists and establishment? Or, will the recent tactical restraint over budget fights prevail in an election year when Republicans have a shot at taking control of the Senate?