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Opinion: Administration's Response Machine Rumbles Into Action

Gov. Christie and administration have been honing a response for months. How well will it go down?

carl golden
Carl Golden

When the Bridgegate indictments were announced today by U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, there was an audible sigh of relief rising from the State House and from Gov. Chris Christie and his communications staff in particular. Not because of the identity of those not charged or because they failed to fully grasp the impact, but because it meant the wait was over; the speculation ended; the details filled in; the angst eased; and the sleepless nights -- if there were any -- things of the past. Virtually everyone knew this day was coming. The administration was not blindsided nor caught flat-footed.

Fishman’s announcement was almost like the referee’s whistle for the opening kickoff. It’s now time to act, to get over the jittery anxiety phase, and to turn all energy toward implementing the tactics underpinning the strategy to deal with what is arguably the most far-reaching political scandal in the state’s history, one that began in September 2012 with the four-day closure of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee.

There’s been ample time to develop and refine talking points, coordinate with allies in government and out, and assure that many voices speak as one. It is a task made all the more challenging because it’s uncharted territory. There’s no model to follow because it’s never been necessary to respond to a federal investigation involving high-ranking individuals on the governor’s staff and at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, not to mention those who’ve been close to Christie personally, professionally and politically.

The months of internal discussions, brainstorming, and debate had one end in mind -- bending the arc of the coverage toward exoneration of the governor.

The administration message will be larded with terms like exoneration… vindication… cleared… no evidence of wrongdoing… rogue staffers acting on their own

In addition to being futile, it would appear overly defensive to dispute Fishman’s findings. An aggressive offense is preferable to a backpedaling defense.

Rather, the findings should be accepted and characterized to the greatest extent possible as consistent with Christie’s version of events offered in his January 2013 news conference -- that he had no advance knowledge of the lane closures, that he was misled and lied to by deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly, that he took ultimate responsibility, apologized, and fired those involved.

While they did not know when the shoe would drop, they all could see it falling and knew with a fair degree of certainty where it would land. Those in the administration who were responsible for tracking the developments in the 15-month long investigation, while not aware of details and specifics, certainly developed a clear sense of its potential outcome. And, it was on this sense that the communications staff built its response.

Legislators, particularly those Republicans who served on the legislative investigating committee, have already been prepped to issue strong statements of support. Talking points and recommended responses to the most likely questions are in the hands of Republican county chairpersons, as well as preselected political and business leaders.

In all likelihood, there have been overtures to Democrats to join the dialogue, not so much in a stout defense of the governor or the administration, but to suggest that Fishman’s investigation signals the end of the controversy and that is time to move on to dealing with issues of greater impact -- rescuing the public pension and health benefits system chief among them. A bipartisan flavor, while not crucial, is most certainly of considerable benefit.

Because the investigation achieved national attention, the extensive roster of national media contacts will receive the administration response, along with the argument that the issue has been put to rest by federal authorities and is no longer a relevant factor as Christie continues to explore the possibility of announcing his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination.

Perhaps the most crucial and hotly debated decision involved whether or not to arrange for Christie himself to address the indictments in a public setting.

While his presence at a news conference, for instance, would produce a media frenzy such as has never been witnessed in the State House, it offers Christie an opportunity to reassert his non-involvement, emphasize his vindication, and take the entire issue off the table. He’s demonstrated his effectiveness at dealing with the media and he’s his own best spokesman.

The ideal outcome of the Administration strategy would be a headline something like this: “Christie Cleared, Others Indicted in Bridge Scandal.”

However, as that renowned 21st century philosopher Mike Tyson once said when asked about an upcoming opponent: “They all have a strategy until they get hit.”

Carl Golden served as press secretary for Republican Gov. Thomas Kean for eight years and as communications director for Republican Gov. Christie Whitman for three years. He is currently a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

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