Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, believes New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and his staffers shouldn’t be legally punished for their alleged involvement in the Bridgegate scandal as it would “criminalize politics.”
“What the Bridgegate people were doing was moronic, it was wrong, it was dangerous,” Rauch said on the WNYC podcast “The Christie Tracker” Wednesday. “But if you criminalize it, if you make it a federal crime for political people to try to punish their enemies and reward their friends, you’re going to make it very hard to do politics. And that’s what I’m worried about.”
“So bring back Tammany Hall? Is that the way things should be?” the podcast host, David Hurst, asked.
“Well you can’t bring Tammany Hall,” the Brookings fellow replied, before explaining that the famously corrupt New York political machine was for our “grandparents” generation. “But what you can do is stop the trend that we’ve been seeing now for 40 years toward criminalizing the things politicians need to do or abolishing those things.”
According to Rauch, the criminal charges against Christie’s staffers for the Bridgegate scandal are a “stretch” and it would do little to deter bad political behavior.
“What you do when you try to criminalize politics is you don’t make the stuff you don’t like not happen. You make it surreptitious and even harder to control,” he said.
When the host pressed Rauch on the results of Bridgegate — with the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge affecting thousands of motorists — the contributing editor at National Journal and The Atlantic said the offenders should be punished politically, not legally.
“It should be punished in the political sphere,” Rauch commented. “That’s the language they understand.”
The author went on to say that the scandal has already punished Christie and his team by hurting his chances in 2016 and emphasized that criminal sentences for poor political decisions is a bad idea.
“Multiple year prison sentences for people who do bone headed political stuff — that’s not a good idea,” he continued. “Because what happens is that you substitute the judgement of prosecutors for the judgment of politicians. It’s important that prosecutors work for politicians and not the other way around. We don’t want politicians in situations where they have to constantly worry about going to jail if they try to line things up to help their friends or hurt their enemies. Because that criminalizes politics itself.
For Rauch, machine politics entails more efficiency and makes American democracy work better.
“We used to live in a time when it was taken for granted that if you crossed a political boss, you were gonna have some for trouble for that,” he said. “More important though, political machines mostly don’t punish people, they reward people.”