TNR’s Alec MacGillis has trained his gimlet eye on the full record of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and its relationship to his current problems, and demonstrated pretty clearly that the “BridgeGate” scandal is not some act of hubris by an ambitious pol and/or his staff, but the logical culmination of Christie’s entire modus operandi. As a prosecutor, MacGillis shows, Christie was the master of using prosecutorial discretion to curry favor with some corrupt figures even as he went after others:
By taking down some of the state’s bosses while leaving others off-limits, Christie had effectively turned the supposedly apolitical role of prosecutor into that of kingmaker. It was a brilliant strategy. New Jersey offered such a target-rich environment that Christie was able to get credit for taking down a slew of crooked officials and build alliances with some of the most powerful bosses in the state at the same time. Christie’s allies insist that he wasn’t playing favorites. “I can’t imagine Christie would suggest in any way, ‘I want you to lay off of this guy or go after this guy.’ It’s inconceivable to me,” says Ed Stier, a former federal and state prosecutor. Still, by the end of his tenure, Christie began showing up to administer the swearing-in ceremonies of town officials who were replacing the ones he’d pursued. No one could recall a prosecutor doing so, says one longtime Jersey hand: “It was like he was giving them his blessing.”
As governor, the same sort of get-with-the-program-or-I’ll-destroy-you approach has been key to his “bipartisanship” and his “reform” initiatives:
[R]ight from the outset, Christie was working as closely with the machine as any recent governor. Well before his election, the Democratic bosses had met at the U.S. Open in Queens to divvy up the leadership spoils. Sheila Oliver, who worked under Joe D. in Essex County, would become the speaker of the Assembly. Sweeney would get the Senate presidency. Sweeney was a union man—an ironworker—but he was a Norcross man first and foremost.* When it came time for the vote on Christie’s proposal to cut public-employee pensions and health benefits, Sweeney delivered the numbers. It was a coup for Christie—national pundits hailed him as a politician more interested in getting results than scoring partisan points.
In hindsight, what is notable is how openly Christie embraced the bosses. He sent massive resources in their direction; when they came under fire, he vouched for them.
Once Christie set his sites on the presidency and decided that showing skeptical conservatives he had unique crossover appeal was his ace-in-the-hole, these old habits of using intimidation to build a morally dubious bipartisan “team” were bent to that purpose, with predictable results.
Christie used a corrupt system to expand his own power and burnish his own image, and he did it so artfully that he nearly came within striking distance of the White House. When he got cozy with Democratic bosses, people only saw a man willing to work across the aisle. When he bullied his opponents, they only saw a truth-teller. It was one of the most effective optical illusions in American politics—until it wasn’t.
All I’d add to Alec’s tour de force on Christie is that the New Jersey governor faced a familiar problem for Republicans in this age of conservative ideological domination: how can one show bipartisan appeal without unforgivable ideological concessions? George W. Bush succeeded by exploiting the ideological realignment of Texas politics, becoming a “reformer with results” by currying favor with conservative Democrats who were already halfway out of the Donkey Party. That’s no longer an option. Scott Walker claims he’s able to reach out to Obama voters through some sort of “authenticity” appeal based, ironically, on the refusal to compromise.
Christie took the “New Jersey Way” out of the dilemma, using raw power to build—ahem—bridges across the aisle. It was bound to blow up on him sooner or later, and if you want to see how and when that happened, read Alec MacGillis.
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