I’ve mostly been ignoring the Chris Christie furor because I’m waiting for more facts to come out, and also for conservatives to make up their minds whether they want to take this opportunity to throw him under the bus, or defend him as the enemy of their enemies in the Democratic Party and the media.
But Matt Bai, who often does have good insights mixed in with myopia, hits on a fundamental problem for Christie even if he’s cleared of direct involvement in or even knowledge of some of his staff’s shenanigans:
“Part of politics is trying to have sharp elbows publicly in order to make a deal privately,” Christie told me. “And if you don’t have the willingness and ability to do that, then the opportunity to make deals privately that benefit the public become much more difficult in my view, and in my experience.”
Here’s the problem, though: Even if Christie is as shocked by the revelations as he says, what Fort Lee made clear is that, after four years of this, all those public “sharp elbows” have begun to overtake the private pragmatism. After the viral videos of Christie dressing down constituents and the insults casually tossed around like Frisbees on the shore, it’s apparently gotten hard for Christie’s own aides and allies (some of whom, it seems, aren’t quite as bright as the governor to begin with) to discern where the theatrics leave off and the governance begins.
The bridge fiasco, featuring that horrendous email in which a Christie ally mocked the bus-riding children of Democratic voters, is an extreme case. But now you have the Democratic mayor of Hoboken saying Christie’s lieutenant governor threatened to pull back hurricane relief to force her hand on a real estate development. And you can bet there will be more stories like this in the weeks ahead, stories of aides who thought they were channeling the boss, because their concept of the boss, more and more, resembles Tony Soprano.
Actually, I’d guess Christie’s real problem involves the other side of the crime scene from Tony Soprano: he’s a former prosecutor. Prosecutors are among America’s most avid practitioners of the art of “winning by intimidation.” With limited resources but the potential power to ruin lives, prosecutors often use uncertainty about their targets, their strategies, and even their ambitions, to strike fear in the hearts of suspected malefactors, which can be a very efficient way to influence their behavior. Being considered a bad-ass, a zealot, or even a little bit crazy, can be an asset for a prosecutor, and perhaps for a governor dealing with a legislature controlled by the other party. But much as the pundits like to criticize Barack Obama for his alleged passivity, most Americans really don’t want a bad-ass zealot or a crazy person in the Oval Office–much less someone who reminds them of Tony Soprano.
UPDATE: Legal blogger Joe Patrice wrote about the inevitability of the BridgeGate scandal given Christie’s prosecutorial background ten days ago. It’s worth a read.