States want you to visit. Virginia is for Lovers, and Florida is the Sunshine State, and New Mexico is the Land of Enchantment and Minnesota is the Land of a Thousand Lakes, although they don’t mention those lakes are frozen-over most of the time. Each state’s tourism board knows that the idea is to come up with something that says their state is like no other, but everyone knows that already. They just see things differently. Ohio is dead. The folks in Arizona are kind of nuts – from Barry Goldwater to John McCain to Jan Brewer and Sheriff Arpaio – and Iowa is surreally Norman Rockwell normal in an often disturbing way, and Sarah Palin comes from Alaska. California is full of surfers and movie stars. That matter is settled. The rest of the nation already formed its opinion of each state on its own, watching the news, or intense but rather silly television dramas, like the iconic Dallas or Bay Watch, or the current reality shows. That means that it falls to state legislatures to set the record straight, with an official state motto.
New Hampshire came up with Live Free or Die – they’re the take-no-crap libertarians who won’t let anyone tell them what to do about anything – and no, the state motto of Wisconsin is not Eat Cheese or Die. Pennsylvania is the Keystone State, a reminder to everyone that they were once the most important state of all, when there were only thirteen states, so it would be nice if everyone remembered that, even if they don’t matter much anymore. We once mattered? That’s just sad, but neither the ad campaigns nor the state mottos accomplish much. Everyone knows that everything is bigger and better in Texas – any Texan will tell you so. Don’t mess with Texas, as they say, often. And everyone knows that everything in New Jersey is in-your-face crude-and-rude intense, but more or less honest, from Bruce Springsteen to that Jersey Shore reality show that was once so popular, to the quite nasty Real Housewives of New Jersey. The Sopranos, that HBO series about a number of surprisingly complex New Jersey Wise Guys – mob thugs – showed that New Jersey devastating honesty, which can be refreshingly admirable, often has nothing to do with anything even slightly legal. So what ya gonna do about it? You talkin’ to me?
We get it. Americans “get” Texans, like George Bush, even if he wasn’t one, really – he came from a long line of Connecticut Yankees. He just did the Texan thing perfectly, and America understood him. He was the laconic Cowboy, not good with words but out to get the bad guys. After the mess he made – Iraq and Katrina and the collapse of the economy – America may have no longer liked him, but they still understood him. In the same way, America “gets” Chris Christie. He’s the in-your-face crude-and-rude intense but more or less honest New Jersey guy, their governor. He gets things done. He defied his party and worked with Obama to get relief going after Hurricane Sandy. He even praised Obama, repeatedly, in the week before the last election, when Mitt Romney was out there telling us all that Obama was a useless fool, in way over his head.
Republicans weren’t happy with that, but Christie didn’t really care. His message to them was clear. So what ya gonna do about it? A year later he won reelection in a landslide, in a deep blue state. None of them could ever do that, and he was clearly running for president next, offering the New Jersey model. He’d be crude and rude and brutally honest, and more than anything else, he’d be intense. It’s a New Jersey thing. Americans had had enough of those damned Texans.
He just didn’t realize the New Jersey model might be self-limiting:
The mystery of who closed two lanes onto the George Washington Bridge – turning the borough of Fort Lee, N.J., into a parking lot for four days in September – exploded into a full-bore political scandal for Gov. Chris Christie on Wednesday. Emails and texts revealed that a top aide had ordered the closings to punish the town’s mayor after he did not endorse the governor for re-election.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff to Mr. Christie, emailed David Wildstein, a high school friend of the governor who worked at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge.
Later text messages mocked concerns that school buses filled with students were stuck in gridlock: “They are the children of Buono voters,” Mr. Wildstein wrote, referring to Mr. Christie’s opponent Barbara Buono.
The emails are striking in their political maneuvering, showing Christie aides gleeful about some of the chaos that resulted. Emergency vehicles were delayed in responding to three people with heart problems and a missing toddler, and commuters were left fuming. One of the governor’s associates refers to the mayor of Fort Lee as “this little Serbian,” and Ms. Kelly exchanges messages about the plan while she is in line to pay her respects at a wake.
The guy’s family is Croatian, not Serbian, but he was a Democratic mayor, of a not very important small city, who declined to endorse Christie, and his city was punished, but so was Christie:
Mr. Christie denied knowledge of the emails and said his staff was to blame. The growing scandal threatens to tarnish him at the moment he assumes an even larger position on the national stage, as chairman of the Republican Governors Association and an all-but-certain candidate for his party’s presidential nomination in 2016.
While the emails do not establish that the governor himself called for the lane closings, they show his staff was intimately involved, contrary to Mr. Christie’s repeated avowals that no one in his office or campaign knew about them. In fact, the emails show, several staff members and appointees worked to cover up the scheme under the ruse that it was a traffic study. …
The emails could represent evidence that government resources were used for political purposes, a potential crime.
Christie knew it was time for damage control:
What I’ve seen today for the first time is unacceptable. I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge. One thing is clear: this type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my Administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.
He just didn’t know what his people were doing? If so, that’s hardly a ringing endorsement of his leadership skills – you’re supposed to know what you’re people are doing. Actually, you’re supposed to direct them. He just admitted failure, but Andrew Sullivan won’t let him off the hook for claiming to be completely in the dark about his job:
Perhaps it is no big surprise to discover that governor Chris Christie is a vindictive, petty egomaniac contemptuous of the people he serves. But it’s hard to avoid that conclusion when you’ve pored over the new tranche of emails that show how he and his staff made life miserable for a large number of New Jerseyans – and, yes, trapped unnecessarily in traffic is misery, even when you have the gorgeous scenery of the George Washington Bridge to absorb. The point was punishment of a mayor who didn’t endorse the governor, whose re-election was cruising for a landslide victory in any case.
The small details of the email exchanges between Christie staffers are a little insight into the mindset of the men and women Christie surrounds himself with. It’s not a pretty picture.
It’s all in the details:
What strikes me about this is the Soprano-style archness of it all, the sense of total impunity in vindictiveness, as if this is the way politics is always played in Christie-land. When the traffic jams orchestrated by Christie’s staff snarled up even school buses, we get this:
“I feel badly about the kids,” the person replied to Wildstein. “I guess.” “They are the children of Buono voters,” Wildstein wrote, making a reference to Barbara Buono, the Democratic candidate for governor, who lost to Christie in a landslide in November.
“I guess.” Fuck the kids – let’s get even, when we have no real need to. Christie has more than one problem here. He has been revealed as a deeply petty man, willing to sacrifice the public good to pursue narrow political vendettas – not exactly a qualification for a president.
The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein sees trouble coming:
It’s entirely possible that Christie didn’t know very much about the bridge episode. It might just be the product of the culture he’s created, or permitted, to arise around him. What’s dangerous for Christie, though, is that now every political reporter in the country will begin believing rumors of his punishments and hunting down evidence of his retaliation. And things Christie was able to do before to wide applause – like berate a schoolteacher and then have his staff upload it to YouTube – will begin feeding a very different kind of narrative.
Chris Christie rose because he’s a bully. It might be why he falls, too.
George Bush rose because he was Texan – people “got” him – and he fell for the same reason. We figured it out. Laconic cowboys who don’t like thinking too much are dangerous. So are Jersey wise guys – unless Christie is telling the truth and he’s not a wise guy, just completely unaware of what’s going on around him.
Marc Ambinder argues that even that explanation, that Christie just didn’t realize what was happening, is problematic itself:
The fact that Christie’s deputy chief of staff believed it was morally permissible to cause pain to innocents in order to retaliate against a perceived slight, without seeking his permission, and then refused to own up to it, tells us something about the culture that Christie creates around him. She assumed the boss would be okay with what she did. And so did many other Christie advisers, including his campaign manager. And since Christie denied having anything to do with the bridge study, he apparently has fostered a culture where it’s okay to lie to the boss in order to protect him.
At the Federalist, Sean Davis sees real damage in that:
Most people understand that politics ain’t beanbag. There’s a certain amount of rough-and-tumble, back-and-forth backbiting that’s expected from the kind of people who choose to spend their lives trying to accumulate as much power as possible. As a result, backroom maneuvering to remove some political privileges enjoyed by one’s opponent probably wouldn’t draw a second glance. But that’s not what Christie’s top aides did. They deliberately chose to target innocent civilians: moms and dads trying to get to work on time, school bus drivers trying to get children to school, first responders trying to take ill people to the hospital.
It doesn’t matter who you are: that type of behavior is inexcusable. Nobody likes the guy who intentionally abuses his power in order to indiscriminately punish people just trying to get through the day.
Some think that Republicans like in-your-face bullies who love to tell it like it is, no matter who gets hurt, just for the fun of it, but that’s unfair. The idea is not to do random bullying, just because you can, in the manner of Bill O’Reilly. It’s always bullying for a purpose, the last resort of a totally frustrated idealist with real conviction and big and absolutely right ideas, used when no one else seems to see the right thing to do. Christie is all method, with perfect technique, but without purpose.
At Business Insider, Josh Barro sees that:
One of the key raps on Christie is that he’s a “bully” and that he engages in naked power politics. That rap hasn’t hurt him with voters – until now – because they perceived Christie as bullying people who deserved to be bullied and using strong-arm political tactics to make New Jersey’s government work better. Christie’s governing style led to bipartisan agreements on budgets and employee benefits reform, and the targets of his ire were unpopular: teachers’ unions and distrusted municipal officials.
But now we’re seeing an example of Christie’s team doling out punishment in a way that was both incompetent and petty. This isn’t just about the Christie administration engaging in unseemly retributive politics; it’s about them being bad at it.
If you’re going to be a nasty bully and hurt people badly, explain that you had to be a bully this one time, given the circumstances. People will understand and forgive you – at least Republicans will. They’ll feel better about their positions on the poor and the unemployed and immigration reform too. Christie gave the Republicans no way to feel good about lack of compassion for anyone else. This was just stupid. They don’t want a 2016 candidate that makes them look stupid.
Jonathan Chait sees that:
Mitt Romney managed to win the GOP nomination in 2012 despite some ideological vulnerabilities – smaller ones than Christie’s, I’d argue – because he was the sole electable candidate in a field lacking any plausible alternatives. The 2016 field already looks to have several plausible Republican contenders. Christie’s path to victory always involved a desperate-to-win party Establishment circling around him. Why would they circle around a candidate teeming with corruption scandals, when they could instead nominate a more conservative alternative with a more attractive personal image? What reason, at this point, does any Republican have to nominate Christie?
Maybe so, but the Atlantic’s David Graham isn’t so sure:
Perhaps this will be the end of Christie’s career, but it’s hard to see how anyone can tell at this point, and there are several reasonable, and equally speculative, reasons this may blow over. Here we have a regional dispute that is fairly arcane for non-locals: He closed down a few but not all lanes of a bridge that managed by a bi-state agency? Huh? Iowans probably care even less for Bridge and Tunnel folks than Manhattanites. Everyone already knows Christie is a bully, and it’s hard to see how many more people this will convince. And most important of all, there are almost exactly two years until the Iowa caucuses.
The most conservative of conservatives, Erick Erickson, agrees this is a local issue, but argues there’s more to this than the traffic-jam:
There’s more here and it is going to be the problem that haunts Chris Christie. I’m ambivalent on his run for the Presidency. But I don’t see him getting that far for the very reasons underlying this issue – he and his staff operate as divas. I have had Congressmen, Governors, and the staffers of Congressmen and Governors tell me horror stories about dealing with Christie’s people. All of them seem to dread it.
Someone’s been watching the Real Housewives of New Jersey, although Daniel Larison argues the other way:
The pathetic thing about all this is that it will probably have little or no effect on Christie’s presidential ambitions. Many people are already declaring that this marks the demise of a future Christie campaign, but I have a feeling that the story will be received very differently inside the GOP than it is by everyone else. It will probably be treated as a political “hit” by hostile media, and partisans will begin dutifully repeating claims that the story isn’t that important, or that it’s old news, or that it is irrelevant to the state/country’s real problems. That seems likely because that is what partisans usually do when one of their party’s stars is accused of some wrongdoing.
Yeah, but what will they make of what happened the day before:
On Tuesday, Christie made good on a campaign promise and held a ceremonial signing of New Jersey’s version of the DREAM Act, which allows unauthorized immigrants who have lived in New Jersey for three years and graduated from an in-state high school to pay in-state college tuition rates. Previously, many “Dreamers” were paying close to double that rate (the normal out-of-state tuition rate) because of their non-legal status.
“You are an inspiration to us. You’re an inspiration to us because in you we see all that the future of our country can be,” Christie said at a press conference on Tuesday after the ceremonial signing.
“In you, we see the infinite possibilities that exist in a human mind that’s challenged and taught and maximized. In you, most importantly, we see the infinite possibilities of the human spirit, that all of you, with a good heart, caring about not only yourselves but your neighbors, your friends, and your family, can make our country a better place.”
He’s still thumbing his nose at his own party, doing the right thing, according to the majority of the country and the corporate business community. How can they defend him against this politically motivated hit-job on the bridge thing, bouncing around the media, which is controlled by the left and never gives their side an even break, if he’s handing out amnesty to these lesser people like candy?
Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog assesses that problem:
I think Christie’s stance on immigration will have much more impact on his 2016 chances in the GOP primaries than the lane-closure thing, unless somehow that can be linked directly to death or serious harm (at least of a white person) as a result of emergency personnel being ensnared in a traffic jam. I think, and I’m sure you think, that the incident is illustrative of Christie’s character – vindictive, petty – but the smallness of the issue, in national terms, is what’s going to make GOP voters in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina shrug it off. In fact, it might be seen as a positive among those voters, who’ll assume that if he was behind the punishment of Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor, well, the mayor must have done something to deserve it. Christie’s strength has been the sense (among wingers and love-struck media centrists who thrilled to his Fox-promoted YouTube videos) that he’s good-bad but not evil – he dresses people down, but only when they have it coming, and he’s a cuddly guy otherwise. The right will assume the bridge story is more of the same. Immigration is another matter altogether – he’ll be on the defensive about that throughout the primaries.
Let’s see. The middle and left now see the guy as a vindictive, petty egomaniac contemptuous of the people he serves, which the right might forgive, or forget, but they won’t forgive him for doing good things for the wrong sort of people, while the middle and the left will neither forgive nor forget this bridge stunt. That’s quite an accomplishment for a mere twenty-four hours in New Jersey, but then there was Thursday, May 6, 1937, over in Lakehurst – the Hindenburg was gone in thirty-seven seconds. And New Jersey is the Garden State. What’s that about?