On day two of the Christie bridge scandal, it’s worth discussing what kind of culture could lead to such an abuse. There are, of course, theories. One says a principal sets the tone, and — even if Christie didn’t directly order the lane closings — his image as a bully signaled to his team that this is how to conduct business. As National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke argues, “If Obama was responsible for the Park Service and the IRS—which he was—then Christie’s responsible for his staff. It’s pretty simple.”
Another theory is that this says much about the arrogance of political operatives and aides who engage in a sort of “freelancing” or unilateral decision-making (sometimes in order to guarantee plausible deniability for their boss — whether he wants it, or not). You’ve seen these guys, no doubt, click-clacking away on their Blackberrys while generally ignoring the person in front of them. For every profane Rahm Emanuel, there are a hundred devious operators you’ve never heard of. They’re not like you or me. Instead of hiding Playboy under their mattresses as teens, these were getting off to The Path to Power about LBJ — or Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater. When Erick Erickson refers to “divas” and the “Politics of A-Holes,” this is partly what he means.
Then, there’s the theory that New Jersey’s culture of corruption is to blame — that winning in the garden state requires — no, demands! — engaging in a sort of perpetual “street fight.“ As one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers — a self-described “lifelong New Jersey” resident’ — observes: ”Calling New Jersey politics “Soprano-style” is like explaining what a word means by using it in the definition. There are books written about this kind of corruption (hell, one of them is even called The Soprano State) and this kind of action is par for the course.”
Is it possible to win (and survive) in New Jersey while being a boy scout? I doubt it. (This, of course, is not meant to absolve Christie or his team of any responsibility — but it is to seek to understand why this might have happened.)
But I’ll posit a corollary: Perhaps this was a predictable outcome of a Republican governor going head-to-head with the powerful unions and bureaucrats — and trying to roll back liberal policies in a state like New Jersey. After all, if political hegemony can lead to sloppiness and laziness, then constant political battle could lead to atrocities. And, despite Christie’s soaring poll numbers, Republicans in New Jersey (if they are smart) must constantly carry with them a sort of embattled Nixonian chip on their shoulders (as they say, it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.)
Of course, when Republicans seek petty retribution in such places, they especially do so at their peril. Just because one controls the state house doesn’t mean he can compensate for the many Democratic state and local officials, the labor unions, and the media — all ready, willing, and able to selectively exploit your sins when the time is right.
A Republican governor in such places must also be like Caesar’s wife — above suspicion. But this hit was sloppy and misdirected. Emails are the smoking gun, of course, but one of the many reasons the bridge scandal resonates is that it didn’t target a rival boss, but instead, civilians.
Still, it’s worth asking whether the bitter Jersey milieu had something to do with leading an otherwise competent administration into a very unwise decision. And maybe it comes down to this: Sometimes the people who lead revolutions are least equipped to manage them. The pioneers, as they say, take the arrows.