Chris Christie Needs To Own His Bullying

If you’re attacking one of your former appointees for having been “publicly accused by his high school social studies teacher of deceptive behaviour,” you’re probably doing something wrong.

Chris Christie’s memo about David Wildstein’s long record of terribleness (a record that apparently did not stop Christie from making Wildstein his “eyes and ears” at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey) is being mocked for good reasons. But it’s just a symptom of two bigger problems facing Christie:

  1. Christie’s case for himself is untenable. Christie’s key defence in Bridgegate has been that his staff and appointees were out of control, engaging in malfeasance while he had no idea what they were up to. For example, Christie didn’t know about the George Washington Bridge lane closures until they were over, and didn’t know a staffer in his office had called for the closures until emails leaked in January. He was stunned and crestfallen to learn about Bridget Kelly’s “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee email.” A lot of people think Christie is lying about this. But suppose Christie is telling the truth: Then this defence makes him seem like a fool who cannot perform even the most basic personnel management.
  2. Christie’s political organisation is in disarray. Some key aides have resigned or been fired; others are distracted by subpoenas, legal concerns, and infighting. That kind of disorder leads to mistakes like the Wildstein memo. Christie has faced political challenges before, like when incompetence in his Department of Education cost the state $US400 million in Race to the Top funds, but he had an effective and unified political operation to respond to those challenges. Not anymore.

Christie’s political problem may be unfixable. But he’d do himself a favour if he dropped the “shocked, shocked” act and stopped throwing his staff under the bus.

Instead, he should admit that his administration has a culture of using hardball tactics, favour trading, and intimidation to advance its political agenda. Then he should defend the upsides of that culture: by currying favour with allies and intimidating opponents, Christie has gotten a lot done, much of it popular.

As Gordon Gekko might say: “Bullying, for lack of a better word, is good. Bullying is right. Bullying works.”

Christie has gotten Republicans and Democrats to cooperate on a broad agenda: limiting property taxes, reforming public employee health benefits, improving the state’s approach to probation and parole. He’s gotten Democrats to vote for public employee pension cuts and Republicans to vote for the Medicaid expansion. He’s gotten all of his state budgets passed on time and has not had to shut down the state government — unlike his predecessor, Gov. Jon Corzine (D), who presided over a government shutdown in 2006 despite the legislature being controlled by his own party.

The popularity of Christie’s record, and public satisfaction with the Christie administration’s approach to Hurricane Sandy, are the reasons he got so popular in New Jersey in the first place. If New Jersey voters wanted a governor who wasn’t any good at bringing positive and negative pressure to bear, they could have kept Corzine.

Of course, none of that efficacy excuses Bridgegate. But using this frame, Christie could take more of the blame for Bridgegate upon himself, as a reflection of a culture he established for good reasons, but which then got out of hand. In addition to being (I think) approximately true, this argument would have the advantage of not requiring Christie to gradually throw his entire staff under the bus, leading in turn to them coming after him.

I don’t know whether this defence can work. My argument for Christie is closely related to the case for earmarks in the federal budget process: they’re the grease that gets deals done, even if they are individually unseemly and wasteful. While a lot of reporters and political insiders are sold on the case for earmarks, it’s hard to convince the public they’re a good idea.

The display of mean-spirited incompetence in Bridgegate might be so egregious as to offset the positive value of “getting things done.” And other municipal scandals, such as Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s allegations about zoning and the Port Authority, might reveal similarly unacceptable behaviour that goes beyond Bridgegate.

But it’s the best defence Christie has available right now, and surely better than saying he had no idea he staffed his administration with a bunch of incompetent meanies who lie to him.

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