N.J.'s Chris Christie: Big-tent Republican or vindictive bridge blocker?

New Jersey's traffic-blocking bridge scandal brings something its popular, White House-aspiring governor doesn’t need right now, Keith Boag says. An excuse to warm up the entire Chris Christie record and revisit his tendencies toward pettiness, vindictiveness and bullying.

Traffic-blocking scandal reopens Republican governor's record to sharper scrutiny

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie departs City Hall in Fort Lee, N.J., last week, after firing a top aide who apparently helped orchestrate massive traffic jams at a busy commuter bridge to settle an election score. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

It took only 24 hours for Chris Christie to advance the conversation from "Could he be the next president?" to "Could he be the next president Nixon?"

Yes, it still matters whether the New Jersey governor was actually involved in deliberately bottle-necking the traffic on the George Washington Bridge last September out of political spite.

Though he'll likely protest his innocence again when he delivers his state of the state speech this afternoon.

But the bridge scandal brings with it something he really doesn’t need right now: an excuse to warm up the entire Christie record and revisit his tendencies toward pettiness, vindictiveness and bullying. 

It is a record that makes it easier than it should be to imagine him as the mastermind behind the GWB mess — a political payback to a New Jersey mayor who had refused to endorse the governor's candidacy.

The record includes a similar kind of payback to a Rutgers political scientist who saw the funding for his university program, a relatively paltry $169,000, personally vetoed by the governor after they had a disagreement about electoral boundary redistricting.

It also includes a figurative slap in the face to a Democratic predecessor, Richard Codey, who became the only former governor to lose the protection of his security detail after he was mildly critical of Christie in public.

And it includes the instances when Christie has taken pleasure in dismissing, denigrating or dressing down actual citizens of New Jersey.

Best remembered: his infamous snarl at a taxpayer who asked Christie at a televised town hall why he was cutting public school funds while sending his own kids to private school?

"What's your name?" Christie demanded.

"Gayle", she said.


Not one for backing down

Christie has apparently directed that videos of his public confrontations be posted on YouTube. (Really, isn't that more the kind of thing you'd expect from the boss of a drug cartel?)

He tosses off reproach about his style with the folksy and quotable "politics ain't bean-bag."

Yet few politicians are as publicly rude, crude, belligerent and petty as Christie seems to enjoy being, even toward the people he says he finds it so rewarding to serve.

For all of that, it must be said that New Jersey loves its Chris Christie.

Could size have something to do with it? There are a great many Americans, who identify with a public figure who is candid about his struggles to lose weight.

And he has played the Mr. Mature, non-partisan card very well when he's had to.

Campaign buds? U.S. President Barack Obama meets up with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in May 2013. They went on to campaign together along the Jersey Shore boardwalk one year after Superstorm Sandy, six months before Christie's re-election date. (Jason Reed / Reuters)

He was gracious and grateful for President Barack Obama's attention when New Jersey was pelted by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

A Republican, he has governed with a Democratic-controlled legislature that has forced him to seek common ground, in turn making him something of a Republican myth-maker.

The Christie myths

His landslide re-election in November was a giddy moment for Republicans everywhere — a red governor sweeping a blue state, and winning majorities among both women and Hispanics.

The shape of the victory, luring all those traditional Democrats into his tent, was an instant springboard to the top of the heap of possible presidential contenders for 2016.

With his victory came the prospect that he could lead Republicans to win where they usually lost. (Though it overlooks the fact that he had carefully refused to associate himself with many Republican campaigns in districts where he was courting Democrats.)

Republicans had already confirmed he was a star when they chose him as their national convention keynote speaker at Tampa in 2012.

But now, in the aftermath of the bridge scandal, we're reminded how self-serving that Tampa speech was; how it was larded with first-person-singulars but no mention of Mitt Romney, the actual nominee, until more than half way through.

And didn't he also threaten the convention managers that if they didn't play his three-minute self-promoting introductory vanity video, he was going to go before the convention and say "fuck" on national television?

Yes. He said that. And it worked. They played it.

And what about the idea that he can broaden the Republican base because he can appeal to voters as a moderate? How is that standing up to this second look?

As governor, he's blocked minimum wage legislation, vetoed a same-sex marriage bill, climate change initiatives and tax increases on the wealthy. He has also cut funds for public education.

If Christie's a moderate, he's the kind of moderate the Tea Party-inventing billionaire Koch brothers could get behind.

And they have.

The Koch brothers were among the group that put together a draft Christie-for-president breakfast in New York in 2012. Henry Kissinger, a Nixon mechanic, was there too.

At his news conference on Thursday, Christie spoke with great passion and at greater length about what the GWB scandal meant to him — not what it meant to the people of New Jersey, but what it meant to him.

It had rocked the tight circle of political operatives that were "his family," he said.

To the rest of us, his political family is now a group of petty-minded troops whose battle cry, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee!" reeks of the juvenile antics of small-time criminals in superhero comics.

And the thing that puzzled him, he said, was how those people could ever have believed it was OK to lie to him.

What seemed not to occur to him, though it occurred to pretty much everyone else, was what made Christie's political "family" believe he'd be pleased if they punished the commuters of Fort Lee by messing with their bridge to work, school, the hospital, etc. at rush hour?

Christie should remember what even Richard Nixon understood when the end was nigh: "Others may hate you. But those who hate you don't win, unless you hate them back. And then you destroy yourself."

About the Author

Keith Boag

Washington Correspondent

One of the CBC's premier political reporters, Keith Boag is currently based in Washington, D.C., following stints in Los Angeles and on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.


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