IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Christie and the menace of bipartisanship

Reading out to rivals is one thing; strong-arming them is another. A four-day traffic jam is too high a price for political unity.
A supporter of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie wears a button during a campaign stop in Nutley Diner in Nutley, N.J. November 4, 2013.
A supporter of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie wears a button during a campaign stop in Nutley Diner in Nutley, N.J. November 4, 2013. 

The emerging consensus on “Bridgeghazi,” the scandal rapidly engulfing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, is that such "nakedly partisan score-settling" contradicts Christie’s presumed strategy to present himself in the 2016 presidential primaries as a bipartisan alternative to Democrat-demonizing bomb-throwers like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.

That gets it exactly backwards. What Bridgeghazi really demonstrates is that bipartisanship can get pretty nasty, too.

At a press conference Jan. 9, Christie declared himself “embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team” who last September closed two of the three lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich. The reason is unknown but probably it arose from irrational fury that Sokolich, a Democrat, wouldn’t endorse Christie, a Republican. Christie said he had “no knowledge or involvement in this issue” and announced the firing of deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly, author of one of the more compromising e-mails (“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee”) that surfaced Jan. 8 in the Bergen County Record.  

At the press conference, Christie emphasized that the bridge incident was “the exception” to his administration’s modus operandi of “Republicans and Democrats working together … coming to resolution on so many issues in a bipartisan way.” But Bridgeghazi is actually an illustration of how bare-knucked the Christie team’s style of bipartisanship can be.

Partisanship is opposition. Bipartisanship is collaboration, ideally by getting the other side to support you. Christie’s 2013 reelection campaign was premised not on opposing Democrats, but on converting them—an inevitable strategy for a Republican seeking office in a blue state. And by all accounts, Christie pursued that strategy with a vengeance, racking up an unprecedented 60 endorsements from Democratic mayors and other officials. Christie said that demonstrated his unique ability to put politics aside, but what it really demonstrated was political muscle.

In New Jersey, the office of governor enjoys a degree of constitutional power exceeded, by one reckoning, only in Massachusetts. (Former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean once joked that after he described to governors of other states how much clout he had to make appointments and control sectors of the state’s economy, “they nicknamed me the ‘Ayatollah.’”) Christie took maximum advantage of that power—including, his opponent State Sen. Barbara Buono alleged, the allocation of recovery money for Hurricane Sandy--to win Democratic endorsements.

As Bergen County Record columnist Charles Stile observed last November, “Those who worked with him … could count on getting their phone calls returned and their needs addressed. Those who criticized risked being locked out.” By the campaign’s end, even Senate candidate Cory Booker and Senate President Steve Sweeney—both Democrats and both nominal supporters of Buono—were cozying up to Christie. (President Obama avoided endorsing either candidate.) Christie’s victory margin on election day exceeded 20 points.

Did Christie’s landslide victory result from the shrewd exercise of power or the ugly abuse of it? No evidence has yet emerged that Christie or anyone in his campaign was actively seeking Sokolich’s endorsement—Christie said in his press conference that he didn’t even know who Sokolich was until the bridge story surfaced in the press. But Sokolich endorsed Buono, not Christie; the e-mails reveal unambiguous antipathy toward Sokolich two months before the election; and Sokolich is convinced his refusal to endorse Christie is why the bridge incident occurred. “It’s the worst example of a petty political vendetta,” said Sokolich.

And not, perhaps, the only example. Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, a Democrat, says that after he told Christie’s team he wouldn’t endorse Christie, a host of meetings he had scheduled with state officials got cancelled. In one of the e-mails, Kelly asked David Wildstein, the Christie appointee at the New York and New Jersey Port Authority who directed the lane closings (and who resigned last month), whether Sokolich’s phone message complaining that the closings threatened public safety was answered. “Radio silence,” Wildstein replied. “His name comes after Mayor Fulop.” Although the meaning of the Fulop reference is unclear, the implication seems to be that Christie’s political operation (or at least Kelly and Wildstein) sought retribution against both Sokolich and Fulop.

Why New Jersey’s Democratic party allowed its officeholders to defect en masse from the state party ticket is a question many state Democrats have been asking since election day. More will ask that now. Even forgetting Bridgeghazi, one can’t recall any comparably “bipartisan” endorsement-harvest by a Democratic statewide officeholder operating in a predominantly Republican state. The prevailing Democratic style of bipartisanship, perfected by President Obama during his first term, is to modify legislation to appease some imaginary reasonable Republican, then watch the entire GOP caucus vote against the bill (with half of them calling the compromiser a socialist). This type of bipartisanship is troubling in an entirely different way, and there’s some evidence that Obama, at least, has abandoned it.

Republican bipartisanship, the George Washington Bridge episode shows, is an altogether more thuggish affair, sufficiently distasteful to offend even tireless Third Way pipe-puffers like Erskine Bowles. Partisan gridlock may be a terrible curse, but if the alternative is traffic gridlock, America will take partisanship over bipartisanship any day.