A lot of things in the bridge scandal narrative don’t add up — if you know much about New Jersey politics — about the critics’ version of the controversy.
To begin with, the idea that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) knew about this or ordered Fort Lee to be zapped with traffic is belied by his initial reaction when he heard about the brewing scandal. Early last month, he cracked, “I worked the cones. Unbeknownst to anyone, I was working the cones.” You have to be politically suicidal to say that if you had an inkling of what was going on. (Rudy Giuliani, for what it is worth, has made the same point.)
Unless Christie did have affirmative knowledge to the contrary, it is understandable that he would have believed the testimony under oath of former Port Authority official, Bill Baroni. (He’s now in a heap of trouble, for obvious reasons.) To get wind of what was going on, he’d have to believe Baroni would risk career and legal jeopardy. That testimony confirmed what his staff purportedly was telling him.
On top of all that, this scheme started in August. It wasn’t retaliation for not endorsing Christie because the campaign hadn’t ended, let alone begun in earnest. (That’s apart from Christie’s assertion that he had no idea who the Fort Lee mayor was.)
So the Christie-vendetta theory really doesn’t make sense in any respect. Christie’s critics (the very same ones who derided the idea of the IRS story) resort to another version: He created a “culture” of political retaliation. In their telling, Christie was a “bully” who made it clear his staff had to punish people who crossed them. But here is where a modicum of knowledge about New Jersey politics helps. This isn’t how Christie operates, and we have four years of evidence.
Christie is termed a “bully” by people who know him primarily from his town hall appearances and news conferences. He likes to confront people, argue with people and take swipes at outfits like the teachers’ union. But beyond that his administration, whatever you think of it, has operated on the “make deals with Democrats” and “love the Democrats to death” model.
When you look at his legislative output, be it on pensions or taxes or crime, he publicly jousted with Democrats and they jousted back, but ultimately they made deals. If he’d been threatening and punishing Democrats (or his staff had been) do you think they’d have made the deals and then endorsed him in such large numbers?
Moreover, on a local level Christie has gone out of his way to help, not punish, communities that never vote for him. Two cases in point are Newark and Camden, where he stepped in on crime and education reform. He was aiming, if you want to be cynical, to score points, not target opponents. If he wanted to punish those communities, does anyone think he’d have spent political capital and taken on an array of vested interests to help people who instinctively vote Democratic?
You don’t have to like Christie or even think he is sincere to understand that his “thing” is publicly talking tough and then making all sorts of deals with opponents (on immigration, most recently). This is why right wingers mistrust him. You can’t be both a squish and a bully, you see. And you can’t have a bully mindset if your success is predicated on winning over Democrats and winning by a huge margin in a Democratic state.
In other words, the “bully” explanation is a sloppy talking point (or sloppy journalism), which doesn’t solve the mystery of why a group of staffers would behave so stupidly. For that, we’ll have to wait for their testimony and/or the rest of the investigation.