Christie's Conservative Problem

Fickle Base, Little Trust

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.

(c) 2014, Washington Post Writers Group

About the Author

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).



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Retaliation for a nothing mayoral endorsement? nah... Retaliation to punish Dem pols representing Fort Lee? nah nah

How about giving a head ache to a hundreds  millions of dollar real estate deal that is trying to sell condos with a 10 minute ride and view of  mid town Manhatten? Take away the ten minute ride by a temp closing of lanes and then threatening to make it permanant unless there is  a contribution for access ? .... no lanes to the bridge  and  you miight as well build the condos in Poughkeepsie.

this is how it looks from Frisco.

It is hard to imagine that people who live outside of the NYC area will see temporarily closing four lanes to the George Washington Bridge that primarily impacted Fort Lee as a huge issue compared with the impact of Obama's IRS scandal or the blatant lies to the nation about ObamaCare. As we move forward toward 2016, Christie may have to deal with Bridgegate, but Hilary will have to deal with Benghazi. This does not excuse the need for a righteous moral imagination that should underpin politics and power. Nevertheless, when the presidential campaings of both parties start, we may be left with a decision about the lesser of two evils. I hope I am wrong. 



Let's be realistic here. Conserbvatives have no problem with big government if it's used for war or police repression of the left or for bullying those who are not conservatives into silence and submssion.

Here's a good quote from Chris Hedges (who often goes over the hill, but not always):

"Among his other supporters are many hedge fund managers and corporate executives and some of the nation’s most retrograde billionaires, including the Koch brothers. The brewing scandal over the closing of traffic lanes on the George Washington Bridge apparently in retaliation for the Fort Lee mayor’s refusal to support the governor’s 2013 re-election is a window into how federal agencies and the security and surveillance apparatus would be routinely employed in a Christie presidency to punish anyone who challenged this tiny cabal’s grip on power.

Christie is the caricature of a Third World despot. He has a vicious temper, a propensity to bully and belittle those weaker than himself, an insatiable thirst for revenge against real or perceived enemies, and little respect for the law and, as recent events have made clear, for the truth. He is gripped by a bottomless hedonism that includes a demand for private jets, huge entourages, exclusive hotels and lavish meals. Wall Street and the security and surveillance apparatus want a real son of a bitch in power, someone with the moral compass of Al Capone, in order to ruthlessly silence and crush those of us who are working to overthrow the corporate state. They have had enough of what they perceive to be Barack Obama’s softness. Christie fits the profile and he is drooling for the opportunity.

Activists, Democratic and Republican rivals for power, liberals, reformers and environmentalists will, if Christie becomes president, see the vast forces of the security state surge into overdrive to stymie and reverse reform, gut our tepid financial and environmental regulations, further enrich the corporate elite who are pillaging the country, and savagely shut down all dissent. The corporate state’s repression, now on the brink of totalitarianism, would with the help of Christie, his corporate backers and his tea party loyalists become a full-blown corporate fascism."

What IRS scandal? Liberal groups were trageted just as much as conservative groups. But Issa refiused to rea;ease this information. You obviously don't read the news or rely only Fox News. Both liberal and conservatives non-profits were investigated for using their non-profot status political;ly rather than for the stated purposes of a non-profit. But only two liberal groups were denied their non-profit status.

Genghazi? Grow up. The conservative narraive about Benghazi has been disproven many times, except, of course, ion Fox News. And it was the Republicans who insisted on reducing funding for security at US embassies, putting many of thaem into vulnerable state.

Lies and corruption? If you want your lies, you can keep your lies. 

Michael Barberi

I do so enjoy your notions on the topic of theology.  Your notions on American politics not so much.  The largely trumped up and clearly distorted nonsense being preached by the likes of Darrell Issa and his minions is merely another example of a near worship of ignorance.  You might want to consider the source.  Please note I make the disparaging remarks about Issa not you.  On the larger issue of the repeated cycles involving the adulation of ignorance in American politics I recommend Richard Hofstadter's "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life". It's a bit dated but we both know ignorance shines right through any new and shiny vehicle in which it rides. Please note I find no problem at all with ignorance itself.  Least of all the extensive collection of my own.  The problem lies in selling it as knowledge.   At the risk of pontificating, the journey towards God is hardly straight but the sum of the parts always moves us forward.


Thanks for your comments. I find myself watching multiple TV and cable news channels, as well as commentaries, because I am not completely satisfied that any one of them provides the full unadulterated truth. Each of these so-called news channels all favor one or another political philosophy, some more than others. So, if you are suggesting that Fox News or msNBC distort the truth about Benghazi, the IRS scandal, Bridgegate, or paint Obama in a favorable light and the Republicans as the villians in all of this, welcome to the club. For that matter, the liberal press can't be trusted to air any balanced view of the facts as well. I don't profess to be an expert on politics but I am not as ignorant as your comments imply for I am only reasoning what is portrayed. Frankly, I became an Independant because I agree with some Democratic and Republican principles, but not all of them. I think Obama is a good person and has good intentions, but his judgment and that of his staff have much to be desired. He got elected twice mostly because he had not convincing opponent. Nevertheless, his policies are far from perfect, and I am being kind.

One last point, you never mentioned my other comment about comparing Bridgegate to blatant Obama lies "that if you like your plan and doctor, you can keep them....and that the average family of four will save $2500 per year for healcare benefits."....among others.

I prefer to hang my hat on healthcare benefits expertise, and moral theology, and not on ignorance. Before I studied moral philosophy for five years, I was a senior partner in a worldwide healthcare consulting company for 15 years before becoming a SVP in large healthcare company. If a President can lie 39 times in front of a national audience on something as personal to people, like healthcare, then he can construct another lie that Benghazi was merely a non-planned, over-reaction to a Y-tube video by a group of people that had no affiliation with terrorism. if you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn for sale.

Lasty, Bridgegate might prove to be Christie's demise but unless there is a smoking gun, I think he will weather this storm.



Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment