The meme I’ve joined in that suggests there’s something Nixonian about Chris Christie got an explanatory boost today from Jonathan Chait, who notes that a “bullying” willingness to reward allies and punish enemies can be a tangible asset in bipartisan deal-cutting:

There’s no reason why a politician can’t abuse power and cooperate with the other party. Richard Nixon may offer the consummate example here. Nixon has to be judged according to the standard of his day, when the two parties cooperated more closely on economic policy, and the center of ideological gravity sat far to the left of where it does now. Even so, Nixon happily cut deals with Democrats in Congress, signing bills that created the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration; expanded food stamps, Medicaid, and Social Security; and proposed universal health insurance and a minimum basic income.

Working with a legislature controlled by the opposite party is a shrewd way for an executive to maximize his power and influence. Genuine ideological opposition may prevent such deals, but if your only goal is power and influence, then you’re less likely to let that stop you. Indeed, the sort of threats and rewards Christie characteristically deploys would have little force if he were reliably partisan. It is only his willingness to cross party lines to help pliant Democrats — or punish disagreeable Republicans, like Tom Kean Jr. — that gives him the flexibility to be an effective bully. A reliable partisan would be locked into alliances with his fellow partisans, and locked into rivalries with the opposing party.

This last observation, of course, explains why hard-core conservative loath Christie: they view “unprincipled” deal-cutting with the “enemy” as inherently corrupt, whether or not money or some other sleazy inducement changes hands. So even if Christie is cleared of technical wrong-doing, his outreach to Democrats, public or private, indicts him permanently as a crook in the eyes of the people who may soon be passing judgment on presidential candidates.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.