After swiftly dismissing a top official in his administration, Chris Christie was characteristically caustic when pressed by the press for the lesson to be drawn from the scandal: “Don’t lie to the governor.”
But that was then — three years ago. This week, the raging bull turned sad puppy for two hours of bravura contrition after cashiering yet another top aide who, he says, lied to him. It is a different time, and this is a very different scandal. Yet, I can’t help suspecting it’s the same old Christie.
Back in 2010, it was Bret Schundler, Christie’s education chief, who was shown the door after purportedly deceiving the boss. The controversy that led to Schundler’s abrupt termination was considerably drier than the “Bridgegate” scandal currently engulfing the governor — the former was just run-of-the-mill governmental bungling, as the Bergen Record relates.
New Jersey had failed to qualify for federal “Race to the Top” education funds, falling a measly three points short of the 500-point threshold prescribed by an abstruse Washington formula. The amount of money involved was enormous, $400 million. But in a country where trillion is the new billion, that’s a few digits shy of grabbing the public’s attention. Plus, Christie — just hitting his stride, his eccentric brand of tough-guy bipartisanship not yet stale — was not then a national figure. So the fact that the Garden State lost out because its application omitted two years of budget data (a five-point penalty!) was big news in Trenton, but nowhere else.
This past September’s bumper-to-bumper snarls are quite another matter. They hit New Jerseyans where we live much of the time: on our derrieres, behind the wheel hours on end, crawling tortoise-like from place to place — especially when one of those places is the Big Apple. So the ongoing scandal is about traffic . . . but, of course, it’s juicier than that. It’s about hellacious traffic jams that were willfully manufactured — much as that may sound like a coals-to-Newcastle errand. It’s about Christie’s administration maliciously slamming already beleaguered commuters — and, worse, subjecting police, fire departments, emergency medical teams, school buses, and small-business merchants to withering gridlock — as payback against at least one recalcitrant Democratic mayor.
In public, the notorious Christie wrath is usually reserved for tea-party conservatives, for those who don’t share his soft spot for Islamic supremacists, and for the stray insolent teachers’-union rep — because, well, who doesn’t enjoy watching that? Playing nicely with Democrats is a big part of the governor’s shtick. So why was Mr. Bipartisan — or, at least, his closest aides — harassing Democrats behind the scenes? After all, he was already cruising to a reelection romp — ultimately crushing his hapless opponent by 22 points.
Team Christie was in harassment mode because the governor is already running for president and sees his Mr. Bipartisan brand as the ticket to the White House: the lone earnest pol who can bridge the poisonous partisan divide. His hug-fest with Barack Obama as the 2012 election headed toward the wire was a good start, but it would be nicely complemented by a blowout win in a blue-blue state and a bandwagon teeming with as many Christie-crats as possible — “Christie-crat” being an epithet the Left affixes to Dems who work closely with the governor, a rough Jersey analogue of “RINO.”
So Team Christie — with, we are to believe, little or no direction from the guy who stood to benefit — turned up the heat on Democrats, pressuring them to endorse Christie’s reelection. Apparently, any Democrats would do, even if the governor could not pick them out of a line-up, as was evidently the case with Mark Sokolich, the Fort Lee mayor targeted in Bridgegate for refusing Team Christie’s entreaties. Another Democratic mayor, Jersey City’s Steven Fulop, claims that the day he announced he would not support Christie, a string of state commissioners, one by one, called to cancel meetings to address the city’s problems — and that he’s had great difficulty getting Trenton’s attention ever since.
The damning e-mails made public this week show that Christie aides and appointees held Sokolich and Fulop in contempt. Nevertheless, to focus on personal vendettas — as Christie did for the purposes of stressing that he did not have them and of thus distancing himself from his staff’s shenanigans — is to miss the point. The Christie objective was not to punish reluctant Democrats. That was a corollary. The aim was to stockpile supportive Democrats. For presidential-campaign purposes, it was the accumulation that mattered to the big guy, not the specific personalities.
Why does that matter? Because we’re trying to figure out what actually happened here. Do I believe Chris Christie instructed his people to retaliate against Sokolich, Fulop, and perhaps other specific Democrats? Highly unlikely. Do I believe Christie directed his trusted aides — officials who’d been with him a long time and had a good idea of the limits of their authority — to line up as many supportive Democrats as possible and not bother him with a lot of details about how they went about it? Well now . . .
Christie’s mea culpa on Thursday was in many ways impressive, even if it does seem, in restropect, to have been more about the sins of others. He took responsibility but not blame, repeatedly protesting his personal innocence. He swiftly terminated two top aides shown by the e-mails to have plotted, or at least been aware of, the massive traffic jams, but he was dodgy about what, if any, further investigative steps he — as opposed to the legislature or the prosecutors — might take.
Christie’s admirers are actually framing the exhibition of remorse as a triumph that somehow erases the debacle that prompted the exhibition. Still seeing him as their preferred 2016 candidate, they are quick to compare him favorably with the Obama administration, in which responsibility is rarely acknowledged and heads never roll. But that’s a very low bar. If we were not talking about government, if such corruption had occurred at a private corporation, prosecutors would have expected the company to have launched a searching internal investigation at the first scent of wrongdoing. They would have demanded full disclosure to, and energetic cooperation with, the government.