Another incriminating cache of emails, another Republican governor facing harsh questions and once more the hounds of political scandal are in full cry.
There are, however, important differences between the controversies surrounding Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and New Jersey’s Chris Christie, which matter as both weigh potential 2016 campaigns for president.
On Wednesday, Wisconsin investigators released thousands of pages of documents regarding public employees doing inappropriate political work for Walker when he was Milwaukee County executive, before his 2010 election as governor. The emails were tied to a former Walker aide who pleaded guilty to felony misconduct. Several others were also convicted.
The governor was not charged in the case, but a separate inquiry continues into possible campaign violations in Walker’s successful fight against a 2012 recall attempt.
In New Jersey, Christie’s administration faces a barrage of subpoenas regarding the closures of lanes approaching the George Washington Bridge, which resulted in days of monumental — and politically inspired — traffic jams.
Without diminishing the import of the allegations against Walker, he appears in far better shape politically than Christie, barring further revelations. (Which could become a motto in 2016: “Vote for ____, unless something else comes out.”)
Here are several reasons why Walker is likely to suffer less than Christie has:
— A traffic jam is something readily understandable to people. So is politically motivated vengeance. Now watch as the late-night comics and political satirists struggle to wring humor out of events in Milwaukee.
Whether or not Christie knew about the lane closures, the snarky facts — “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” a Christie staffer emailed to set the chaos in motion — offer the perfect recipe for an indelibly damaging, and shocking, narrative. By contrast, public employees helping out the boss on company time is about as surprising as a politician seeking campaign contributions from individuals with a stake in government decisions. It may be untoward, smelly and even unethical, but it happens every day in city halls and state capitals across the country.
— Christie is head of the Republican Governors Assn., traveling the country for the benefit of the GOP and collecting political IOUs along the way. Every trip he takes is another reason for reporters to write about his travels (and travails) and test their skills at finding new and different bridge metaphors.
— Taking nothing away from Wisconsin’s political reporters, there is nothing this side of a starving piranha so voracious as New York City’s tabloid-fueled press corps. Anything Christie says or does is magnified exponentially by the scrutiny. It may be the one time Walker is grateful to live and work in so-called flyover country.
— The documents released Wednesday grew out of an old investigation. Prosecutors are just now starting their inquiry into Christie’s doings, which means his administration will be tied up with subpoenas, lawyers and depositions for months, at a minimum. That is not only incredibly time consuming and debilitating, but even with no wrongdoing there is always the prospect of investigators turning up something wholly unrelated but even more damaging. (See Clinton, Bill; Starr, Kenneth; and Whitewater.)
— Foremost, perhaps, is the fact that Walker is up for reelection in November. While a second term is far from certain, if he wins and decides to pursue the White House he can say, rightfully, that voters at home were well aware of the charges of wrongdoing and chose to put Walker back in office anyway. The revelations surrounding Christie did not surface until after his landslide reelection last fall; ironically, Christie was trying to win over Democrats, like the mayor of traffic-paralyzed Fort Lee, to enhance his stature in a 2016 White House bid.
For the record, 12:40 p.m. Feb. 20: A previous version of this post referred to the Whitewater prosecutor as Kevin Starr. He is Kenneth Starr.