The Black Knight in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" has nothing on Chris Christie. As he was being dismembered, the Black Knight insisted, “It's just a flesh wound.” But Christie? “Wound? What wound?” is more his style. And in a sense that makes him the perfect presidential standard bearer for the GOP establishment wing. Just not in the way they had hoped.
Here's perhaps Christie's best “Wound? What wound?” statement, from last week — delivered to CBS's Bob Schieffer (at Pete Peterson's fiscal summit, no less), referring to the Bridgegate lane closure scandal:
“I’m not the first chief executive who had someone on their staff do something they didn’t know something about they disapproved of and later had to fire them. I don’t think that that hurt anybody’s career and it’s not going to hurt mine.”
This a classic Christie move: 1) draw a sharp, false or misleading distinction, 2) thereby denying everything, and 3) shifting blame onto others. According to Christie, he didn't order Bridgegate, didn't know about it in advance, therefore did nothing wrong, other people were entirely to blame, end of story, let the campaign begin. That's his narrative strategy in a nutshell. But it's not just in a nutshell. It's also just plain nuts — as Christie's drastic drop in favorability testifies.
Of course, whether or not Christie ordered Bridgegate certainly matters as a question of law. But pretending that's the only question that matters is not just misleading, it's downright false. As a question of politics, it's more than enough that Christie created the bullying culture that led to the decision, whoever was actually involved. And there's no doubt that Christie has done that, as the Newark Star Ledger editorialized in late April.
The Star Ledger started out presenting the crux of Christie's argument that being bipartisan means he couldn't be a bully:
The idea that a politician who cooperates with the other party could have also created the culture of retaliation that led to the George Washington Bridge scandal is ludicrous, Gov. Chris Christie argued yesterday.
"Point to something factual — something —that proves that,” he told the crowd at his town hall meeting in Brick. The allegation, he said, "just doesn't have any basis in fact."
To prove that he works well with others, Christie reviewed his early bipartisan accomplishments, including the 2 percent property tax cap and state pension and benefits reform.
“This happens to someone who has created a culture of divisiveness?” he asked. “That’d probably be one of the first times in American history where that happened."
This goes to the very heart of Christie's “bipartisan” brand, so vital to making him competitive in a general election, which, in turn, was once his trump card in hoping to win the GOP primary. But, of course, it's utter hogwash, the Star Ledger quickly noted:
But not the first time: Richard Nixon also cut effective deals with Democrats and went on to abuse his power, New York magazine's Jonathan Chait aptly pointed out. In fact, someone who's more concerned with power and influence than ideology makes a better bully because he's not constrained by partisan alliances.
Richard Nixon is probably the last person Christie wants to be compared to, but he's easily the most apt. Even today many commentators misleadingly claim that Nixon was a liberal president, because of all the deals he cut with much more liberal Congress than any we've seen in recent decades. But Nixon was famously uninterested in domestic policy, so that's always been a deeply flawed interpretation of his record. Nixon was actually a very common kind of conservative — one who aims to make necessary changes on the best possible terms for conservatives, with an eye toward the battles of tomorrow.
Due to living in very different times, Nixon and Christie are working in very different policy environments, with very different policy norms. But for both of them, the relationship between policy, partisanship and power is strikingly similar, as Chait spelled out:
Working with a legislature controlled by the opposite party is a shrewd way for an executive to maximize his power and influence. Genuine ideological opposition may prevent such deals, but if your only goal is power and influence, then you’re less likely to let that stop you. Indeed, the sort of threats and rewards Christie characteristically deploys would have little force if he were reliably partisan. It is only his willingness to cross party lines to help pliant Democrats — or punish disagreeable Republicans, like Tom Kean Jr.— that gives him the flexibility to be an effective bully.
None of this is new, of course. Chait made his point back in late January, and the Star Ledger referenced him late last month. But this idea — that bipartisanship and skulduggery can go hand in hand — is profoundly contrary to the media elite zeitgeist, and the corporate elite culture they serve. In part that's why they're still pretending Christie's 2016 chances aren't extinct.
What is new this week is that there's another way to cut through Christie's obfuscation, which opens up yet another Christie-Nixon similarity — their shared fatal weakness for a coverup. As MSNBC's Steve Kornacki pointed out, on last Saturday's edition of "Up With Steve Kornacki," the real Bridgegate question is not a legalistic black-and-white one — “Did Christie know in advance or didn't he?” The real Bridgegate question is a political one about the gray area, in which — according to multiple sources, as Kornacki laid out — Christie knew something was up, but actively worked in denial, and lied to the press.
Evidence of this coverup came clearly into focus this week from the testimony of a longtime loyal Christie aide and current press secretary, Michael Drewniak, as other close observers also noted, including Blue Jersey, NJ Spotlight and others. For example, Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth University Polling Institute, tweeted at the time:
NEWS: I don't know whether Drewniak realizes it, but he just said he told Christie on Dec 5 that Wildstein implicated [Bridget] Kelly & [Bill] Stepien!
The significance is that Christie held a press conference eight days later in which he claimed that no one in his inner circle knew anything about the lane closures, which Christie had to know was a bald-faced lie, in view of what Drewniak just said above. But this was only one of several threads telling a similar story. As Kornacki explained, Christie apparently had hoped to ride things out until the legislative investigative committee's term expired, which he came within just seven days of doing, before Bridget Kelly's “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email became public on Jan. 8, and blew everything wide open.
As with Nixon and Watergate, it was the coverup, not the crime.
Drewniak's testimony led to a follow-up response from Bill Stepien, as the Daily News reported on May 14:
Gov. Chris Christie’s former campaign manager says he told the governor about plans to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge in December, contradicting Christie’s claims he had no prior knowledge.
Bill Stepien, who lost his job in the scandal, contends he told Christie about the GWB traffic plans on Dec. 12, a day before the governor told reporters his staff didn’t know about them.
On its own Christie might be able to keep simply denying anything Stepien might say. But now Drewniak's own story supports Stepien, and multiple lines of testimony converge to point to a coverup, as Kornacki explained in detail. Going forward, Christie will not be exonerated by further testimony, except possibly on the narrowest of legalistic terms — and none of his national political opponents is going to let him get away with that. However well Christie's self-vindication fits with the media's ideology, that can only keep the illusion of his viability alive — but nothing more.
The Star Ledger's editorial above continued:
Christie's early bipartisanship doesn't prove he didn't create an atmosphere of divisiveness. Over the past two years, he's thrown himself into a series of partisan standoffs: on state Supreme Court nominees, the minimum wage, gay marriage and state worker pensions. And the allegation that he created a culture of retaliation among his own staffers has plenty of basis in fact.
His personal style has always been vindictive and aggressive. Lawmakers who challenged him were "numbnuts," a "jerk" and a "partisan hack." A Navy SEAL at a town hall meeting was an "idiot." The state's respected budget guru was "Dr. Kevorkian of the numbers."
In today's political world, none of that proved fatal to Christie. Nor would it be in a prospective presidential campaign. His bullying is what endears him to those willing to support him on the right, so none of this would be an issue in the GOP primary. And in a general election, all this actual evidence of Christie's bullying behavior would have to be balanced by the media's balance police giving uncritical support to fantasy-based accusations against his opponent. For that reason, those firmly embedded in the media establishment still fall for Christie's Black Knight routine, even though he's now clearly crossed over into Richard Nixon territory. But the fact that he lied outright to the press will not go unmentioned by other candidates should he be foolish enough to try to run in 2016.
In the end, what has undone Christie with Bridgegate is the same thing that undid Nixon over Watergate: He was so good at the sort of bipartisan bullying game Chait described that he lost sight of the limits of the game — limits that when respected had been powerful tools to use against his enemies, but that proved unforgiving when he went too far in ignoring them himself.
Christies' Sixth Bond Downgrade
But as if the recent coverup revelations weren't enough, there are two other fronts on which Christie's presidential fate has just been fatally damaged, in spite of his Black Knight routine. On May 14, Moody's downgraded New Jersey's bonds for the third time this year, and the sixth time since Christie took office. Here's the Star Ledger:
Another Wall Street rating agency — Moody’s Investors Service — has downgraded New Jersey’s debt and is sounding the alarm about the state’s "lagging economic performance."
It was the third ratings cut this year for New Jersey, the sixth downgrade since Gov. Chris Christie took office, and the latest sign that the Garden State’s ailing fiscal condition is taking a turn for the worse.
Moody’s action comes two weeks after the Christie administration disclosed an $807 million shortfall in the state budget, which the Republican governor is scrambling to plug before the fiscal year ends June 30.
The agency said revenue shortfalls have been a persistent problem over the last three years, placing New Jersey in a "weakened financial position." Even before the current $807 million shortfall came to light, state revenue growth in the last three years had come in short of Christie’s projections by billions of dollars.
Of course, it's no surprise that Christie tried to shift blame on this front as well. But it just won't matter. After losing the instant appeal of his “bipartisan problem-solver” luster in Bridgegate, this is the worst possible news for a would-be presidential candidate trying to carry the banner for the supposedly business-savvy Republican establishment. And one more reason he can't carry the sensible center in the general election is one more reason the right won't hold their nose and vote for him in the primary.
The Baker/Christie Pay to Play Scandal
Finally, there's a brand-new scandal that Christie's barely even begun to deal with. On May 8, David Sirota broke a corruption story, “Christie officials gave millions in public funds to VC firm, despite 'pay to play' rules,” which implicates Charles Baker, the establishment GOP candidate for governor in Massachusetts, as a $10,000 campaign donor, along with Christie's administration, which “has committed $15 million to the firm and currently has $8.3 million of pension money in the firm” which would generate “more than $200,000 a year in compensation” for Baker's firm, according to the terms of the original proposal. This is a straightforward violation of New Jersey's “pay to play” campaign finance rules.
This story has unleashed a firestorm of controversy in Massachusetts, where Baker and his firm have implausibly tried to portray him as not really an employee or representative. So far, it's caused less of a furor for Christie, partly because there are so many other Christie scandals to keep track of. But since it's not a scandal involving local governments, the Port Authority or Sandy relief, it's actually breaking new ground in Christie Scandal-Land — and that's saying something.
Although most of the follow-up furor has been in Massachusetts, Christie weighed in on his monthly “Ask the Governor” radio interview, which Sirota later quoted from:
“On the $25 million to a fund in Massachusetts, Charlie Baker who is the gubernatorial candidate in question, had made a donation years earlier to the State Committee. He has nothing to do with the investment decisions there at that fund at all. What he does at that fund is to identify businesses for them to invest in. So there was no violation of the law there. There was nothing inappropriate there.”
On Saturday morning, May 17, Sirota tweeted that Pando had asked Christie's office, "How can someone have 'nothing to do with the investment decisions there' while also having a job at the firm 'to identify businesses for them to invest in'?
In response, one commentator tweeted:
I interpreted the statement to mean that Baker identifies candidate businesses, but does not make final decisions.
However, this is not meaningful, as the distinction is not made by the law in question.
It's just the sort of legalistic distinction that Christie loves to use to exonerate himself. But don't expect any other 2016 candidate to let him get away with that one, either.
GOP Establishment Failure
This is not just the story of one candidate's implosion. It's another chapter in the story of the GOP establishment's ongoing long-term crisis, as they no longer have even one credible front-running candidate to back. And the reason goes back to basics: the GOP establishment's spectacular policy failures. Having demonized Democrats relentlessly for decades now, they can't cope with policy failure by moving to the center, as Beltway pundits keep insisting they must. They can only move farther to the right — farther in the direction that has led them to failure in the first place.
In Christie's case, this was made much clearer by Steve Kornacki in a segment on his Jan. 26 program, when he laid out in detail the political background behind the panoply of Bridgegate side-scandals that were starting to emerge. It began with the overcrowded train tunnels connecting New York and New Jersey, and the plan to build a third tunnel that was in place when Chris Christie took office. In a nutshell, Christie killed the tunnel project under false pretenses, then used funds intended for the tunnel to fund other transportation projects without additional borrowing, or raising taxes — thus burnishing his image as a fiscal conservative who still managed to make government work, not just starve to death.
But the lion's share of those funds, roughly $2.5 billion, came from the Port Authority, and were used on projects that fell outside its traditional mission, of funding interstate transportation — that is, transportation between New Jersey and New York, not projects entirely within New Jersey. As a result, Kornacki noted:
[T]he benefit in bond ratings agencies took notice. In 2011 they downgraded the Port Authority`s bonds. [Why should New Jersey have all the fun?]
Moody`s said that the port had, quote, "a complex government structure that makes the authority vulnerable to political interference that can result in delays, revenue diversions for nonsystem assets and added costs for major capital projects essential to the region."
In fact, using his own hardball tactics and the muscle of his Port Authority appointees, Christie got even more than $2.5 billion out of the Port Authority:
But consider this, in 2014 the New Jersey Department of Transportation`s five-year capital plan lays out $21 billion in projects but one out of every $5, almost $4.5 billion, is coming from the Port Authority. And that doesn't include the other half billion they've spent on the Harrison Path Station and the Bayonne bailout.
In short, Christie has been using his muscle to raid the Port Authority like a piggy bank, which only qualifies as “fiscally conservative” once that term itself has become completely bankrupt.
Arguably the biggest scandal of all was the failure of the political press or any other part of the political system to blow the whistle on what Christie has been doing. They were all too busy singing his praises, until Bridget Kelly's email came out. We should all be grateful to Kornacki for laying out the back story so clearly (I've only given the most bare-bones account). If you want to understand what a fraud Christie's center-right politics are, this is the most concrete blueprint you could ever wish for. Thanks to the fundamental brokenness of America's media, it remains virtually a secret. But even if the blueprint has been criminally neglected, the failure itself is there for all to see.
Like Christie himself, the GOP establishment can continue to pretend it's still healthy and whole. “It's just a flesh wound.” That's what they can say. The rest of us, though. We've seen the movie before.