Laugh off the investigation. Ignore it. Or shake your ass with Jimmy Fallon. Three governors who have been seriously floated as possible contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 are under investigation in their home states. How they are coping varies dramatically. Texas Governor Rick Perry seems to have benefited from his troubles; New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was declared dead and is now bobbing back into the running; and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has mostly stayed quiet, perhaps thinking that ignoring the scandal will make it go away.
It is important, former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards told me, that the candidates “don’t dodge or evade.” Instead, he advised them to, “step up to the plate. Tell it like it is—especially if it’s going to come out later from somebody else. It’s important that you admit it, and if you’ve done something wrong, to ask for understanding and forgiveness. If you haven’t done anything wrong, you need to explain your position.”
And Edwards would know.
Edwards (who was governor for a total of sixteen, staggered years from 1972 to 1996) was long-dogged by charges of corruption. He was also known for his candor in addressing them. Asked about receiving illegal campaign contributions, he once said: “It was illegal for them to give, but not for me to receive.” In 1991, having lost his bid for reelection, Edwards declared his candidacy against David Duke, who was revealed to be a neo-Nazi. Bumper stickers supporting Edwards read, “VOTE FOR THE CROOK. IT’S IMPORTANT.” Edwards won. In 2001, Edwards was found guilty on charges of racketeering and sentenced to ten years in Federal prison. Ahead of entering the Big House in Fort Worth, Texas, he told the press: “I will be a model prisoner as I was a model citizen.” Edwards is now running for Congress in Louisiana’s 6th district.
“I just made fun of people who wanted to say things about me or investigate me, because I knew I was not going to get in any kind of trouble,” Edwards told me of his surviving-scandal-playbook.
And so we have Perry.
When a Democratic District Attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg, refused to resign following her arrest for a DUI and belligerent behavior toward her arresting officers (all of which was caught on tape) Perry publicly threatened to veto funding for a powerful investigations unit that she controlled. It was the threat, not the veto itself, that prosecutors believe violated the law. In mid-August, after a year-long investigation, Perry was indicted on charges of abuse of power and coercion of a public official, first and third degree felonies, respectively.
Perry has not exactly been apologetic.
The governor’s strategy to save face has been to demonize Lehmberg, and to laugh the whole thing off. Perry released an ad featuring the deeply embarrassing footage of Lehmberg’s arrest, wherein she is placed in a restraining chair and made to wear a mask. When he turned himself in, he wore a smirk in his mug shot, and then he went out for ice cream with reporters in tow. And not long after his mug shot went viral, Perry’s political action committee, RickPAC, began selling t-shirts that featured it on the front, with the caption “WANTED,” and Lehmberg’s decidedly less attractive mug shot on the back, with the caption, “GUILTY.” Perry posted a link to purchase the t-shirts on Twitter.
Edwards approved of Perry’s strategy. “I think that’s a good way to do it. He feels like he’s been politicized in the legal system, and I think that’s the way to treat it.”
“The Perry indictments have worked in his favor,” David Gergen, a veteran of the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton administrations, and professor of public service at the Harvard Kennedy School, told me. “The Texas indictments have energized the campaign and given him a story to tell. He was looking for a pony to ride in this race, and he may have found one for the next lap or two.” Perry has also benefited from the fact that the national media—the right-wing and the left-wing—seem to be in his corner.
Christie’s method for coping with scandal has been more complicated.
In January, the seemingly-local issue of lane closings on the George Washington Bridge, which created a massive traffic jam in the Hudson River town of Fort Lee, became one of national interest when it was revealed that one of Christie’s closest staffers had ordered them—for what looked like political retribution against a Democratic mayor. The scandal was quickly dubbed “Bridgegate,” and unfortunately for Christie, it played into his reputation as a bully.
Christie’s response was to act unlike himself: humble.
Though he consistently denied his own involvement or knowledge of the event, he apologized. He held a never-ending press conference, wherein he answered every question—after that, he was able to answer questions about the scandal by saying he had already answered all of them. Christie has since largely ignored the several investigations (including one by the U.S. Attorney in New Jersey and one by the U.S. Attorney in New York) into his and his administration’s behavior, traveling to states like Illinois and Iowa and not even facing a single question about Bridgegate. Christie even made his way back onto late night television, where he had, pre-scandal, been a constant presence, to dance with Jimmy Fallon—comically walking off stage when Fallon began to perform a dance titled “This Bridge Is Closed.”
“I think if you get combative and overly objecting, people are going to begin to get suspicious,” Edwards told me. “While it’s not a essential, I think having a sense of humor and a sense of self deprecation is good in politics.”
One Republican consultant wondered how long Bridgegate will linger. He explained, “All great scandals have to involve money or sex. Christie’s dealt with traffic,” but Christie’s opponents will benefit from the “classic question: does [the scandal] play into a known stereotype?”
Comparatively, Walker’s scandal has not made many headlines. Prosecutors in the Badger State allege that he was part of a “criminal scheme” to coordinate conservative groups that spent money to help him defeat the effort to recall him as governor. Walker, who is running for reelection, has not been charged, and has called the allegations “categorically false.” He seems to have largely stayed out of the national media spotlight—though he made an appearance on Twitter, wearing fingerless leather gloves and eating an ice cream cone.
“Walker’s troubles haven’t registered on the national landscape much,” Gergen noted. But as one Republican consultant put it, “There is a drip drip.” A feeling that “this isn’t the first time Walker’s had a problem—that’s problematic.”
When a candidates flaws are seen as an endearing part of who they are, scandal can make them more attractive, Gergen argued. “Americans have broken both ways on rogues. They don’t like some rogues…But if somebody comes along who’s likably rogue? People just think ‘oh, it’s just him. Don’t worry about it.’ It can actually play in their favor.”
Gergen used Bill Clinton, his former boss, as an example. “Republicans overplayed their hand,” and in cases like that, people are more likely to “give them a break and see them as a victim more than a culprit.”
Certainly in Perry’s case, he seems to have tapped into the populist view that the system is broken and rigged against people. “We’re living in an age where the populism, the frustration with the system is very high and those who can claim to be victimized by the system, they can get a lot of help by fighting back. But there have been other times in our history where anybody who had a brush with the law was going to have a lot of trouble. After watergate, you would not want to run in the position any of these three guys is in right now.”
But that may not be an effective long-term strategy.
“Everything is good until it’s not good. That works until you’re convicted. Once you’re convicted, it’s a problem,” said the Republican strategist. As noted above, Christie remains under investigation by various entities in various states. Due to the secretive nature of U.S. Attorney investigations, no one knows for sure what areas of Christie’s record are being prodded. And if any of the investigations were to result in an indictment it remains unclear whether or not Christie would be able to make it work for him like Perry has. And to fight off that indictment, Perry has hired a team of political consultants and criminal lawyers. “The one thing people underestimate is the degree to which this stuff consumes you,” the Republican strategist explained. Surviving scandal requires a lot of time, money, and energy—that’s on top of running a campaign.
And as 2016 inches closer, attacks will get more pointed—and will likely attempt to relate the scandals to broader patterns of behavior in the governors.
But it may be nothing a good bumper sticker can’t fix. Asked what his would say if he were in the place of Perry, Christie, or Walker, Edwards took a few seconds to think. “VOTE FOR RICK. IT’S A TRICK,” “VOTE FOR CHRISTIE. HE‘S THE HEAVYWEIGHT.” And as for Walker, “I could probably think of one,” but nothing came to mind.