What is the greatest fear of conservatives when they warn against the dangers of big government? It is that a leader or the coterie around him will abuse the authority of the state arbitrarily to gather yet more power, punish opponents and, in the process, harm rank-and-file citizens whose well-being matters not a whit to those who are trying to enhance their control.
This, of course, is a quite precise description of what happened when Gov. Chris Christie’s aides ordered the closure of some access lanes to the George Washington Bridge last September. Their motivation was political payback. The result: thousands of commuters along with emergency vehicles, school buses, and pretty much the entire town of Fort Lee, N.J., were thrown into gridlock.
Using public facilities for selfish ends is the very definition of corruption, which is why this scandal bothers people far outside the conservative orbit. It took months for the episode to hit the big time because so many (the New Jersey governor claims he’s one of them) had difficulty believing that government officials would act as recklessly as Christie’s gang did -- and with such indifference to how their actions would affect the lives of people in northern New Jersey who were bystanders to an insider game.
Christie was finally moved to condemn the indefensible only after the smoking gun emerged in the form of emails from his staff and his appointees. Their contents reflected a vindictive urge to squelch all resistance to the governor’s political interests.
And this is the problem Christie hasn’t solved yet. At his epic news conference, he focused again and again on how loyal staff members had “lied” to him and how he felt personally victimized. What he never explained was why he did not press his staff earlier for paper trails so he could know for certain that all his vociferous denials were actually true. He didn’t deal with this flagrant foul until he had no choice. Saying he had faith in his folks is not enough. Christie still has to tell us why he did not treat the possibility of such a misuse of power with any urgency.
Even assuming that Christie’s disavowal of complicity holds up, he faces a long-term challenge in laying this story to rest. History suggests that beating back a scandal requires one or more of these assets: (1) a strong partisan or ideological base; (2) overreach by your adversaries; or (3) a charge that doesn’t fit people’s perceptions of you. Christie has trouble on all three fronts.
If Christie has a base, it consists of Wall Street donors, a media fascinated by his persona and relative moderation, and some but by no means all members of the non-tea party wing of the Republican Party.
He does not have the committed ideological core that Ronald Reagan could rely on to overcome Iran-Contra. He does not have the Democratic base that stuck with Bill Clinton in his sex scandal because the excesses of a special prosecutor and then of a Republican House that impeached him came to enrage Democrats even more than Clinton’s misbehavior.
What of Christie’s base? Wall Street is fickle and pragmatic. The media can turn on a dime. And the Republican establishment, such as it is, has alternatives. Oh, yes, Christie also has support from some machine Democrats in New Jersey who have made deals with him. But they will be even more pragmatic than Wall Street.
Overreach by one’s enemies is always a possibility, but there are no signs of this yet. Christie’s detractors have every reason to take things slowly and methodically. They will enjoy dragging this out.
And as has already been widely noted, the Christie operation’s penchant for settling scores is legendary. This charge fits the existing narrative about the guy so well that Christie had to say the words, “I am not a bully.” Denials of this sort usually have the opposite of their intended effect.
Christie has one other obstacle, and this may be the most important. A great many conservatives never trusted him, and a tale that plays so perfectly into their critique of government could make things worse. Erick Erickson, the right-wing writer, captured this rather colorfully. People sometimes want a politician to be “a jerk,” Erickson wrote on Fox News’ website, but “they want the person to be their jerk,” not a jerk “who tries to make everyone else his whipping boy.” Liberals are the least of Chris Christie’s problems.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).