As a political tactic, character assassination ranks right up there with negative advertising. It’s wildly unpopular and few will admit to using it. Nevertheless, it has been widely practiced for centuries in part because when done correctly, it can be highly effective.
Like most politicians, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is no stranger to political character assassination. Over the years he has been on both ends of these types of attacks.
That is why it wasn’t surprising when on Super Bowl weekend the Governor issued a blistering attack against his former appointee to the Port Authority, David Wildstein. What was shocking, however, was how utterly ineffective it was.
On Saturday, the Governor sent a 700-word email to friends and supporters entitled, “5 Things You Should Know About the Bombshell That's Not A Bombshell.” Point 4 contained an attempt to excoriate Wildstein who the day before had his lawyer issue a letter in which he alleged “evidence exists … tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the [George Washington Bridge] lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed.”
At first the Christie administration issued a fairly subdued response to Wildstein’s allegations. But by late Saturday the Governor’s tone had changed. Maybe it was the boos from the crowd in Times Square that got to him. Whatever it was, something prompted Christie to re-think his initial and uncharacteristically restrained response and issue a more scathing attack on his former high school acquaintance.
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The attempt to malign Wildstein’s character, however, fell flat because it violated several basic rules of effective character assassination (yes there are such things)! The email began by focusing on Wildstein’s activities as a teen (mistake one): “As a 16-year-old kid, he [Wildstein] sued over a local school board election. He was publicly accused by his high school social studies teacher of deceptive behavior.”
At first I thought this must be a joke because it sounded like something you’d hear in a “Saturday Night Live” skit. But no – it turns out the Governor really pointed to a problematic relationship Wildstein supposedly had with a teacher when he was 16.
Not only is it generally a mistake to go back to someone’s adolescence and teenage years, but in order to be effective charges must (a) be relevant, (b) stick, and (c) can’t make you look like you are grasping for just about any old thing to use against your opponent (such as a fallout he supposedly had with his tenth grade teacher?). All this did is make people who weren’t sure about Wildstein think if this is the worst thing he has done, perhaps he’s not such a bad guy after all.
But Christie didn’t stop there. He went on to focus on Wildstein’s term as Mayor of Livingston, New Jersey which he described as “controversial”. He also brought up some of Wildstein’s potentially odd on-line behavior noting:
“He was an anonymous blogger known as Wally Edge. He had a strange habit of registering web addresses for other people's names without telling them.”
This is arguably more relevant because it speaks to Wildstein-the-adult. That may be true if it didn’t also violate another key rule of political character assassination: don’t level charges that may boomerang (i.e. come back to you, raise potentially negative questions about you, or make you look worse than you already do).
Thus, in an attempt to malign Wildstein all Christie did was turn the focus right back on himself, raising problematic questions about his leadership skills and management style. Questions such as: if Wildstein is such a bad guy with such a sordid past, why did you hire him in the first place? How come you, a former federal prosecutor, someone who made his name sniffing out corrupt politicians, didn’t catch on that a person you’ve known since you were a teen had such a troubling past? What does this say about you and your fitness to govern the state, let alone the country?
We all predicted that the loss of his former campaign manager Bill Stepien would be difficult for the Governor to overcome. Reading this email I couldn’t help but think that the loss of Stepien has had a far more immediate impact that I imagined. After all, it’s hard to believe that a seasoned political operative of Stepien’s stature would have ever sanctioned such a misfire.
Jeanne Zaino, Ph.D, is professor of political science at Iona College and of Political Campaign Management at NYU-SCPS. You can follow her on twitter @JeanneZaino