Here I go again writing about Republicans, but how could I not do a post about Chris Christie’s current problems? Full disclosure: I can’t stand the guy, and I enjoy seeing him squirm. I’ve long thought of him as an obese, somewhat more conservative version of Rudy Giuliani: nasty, self-righteous, mean-spirited, petty and vindictive. Like Giuliani, Christie manages to use his irrepressible nastiness to put over an image of refreshing candor–a man apart from most politicians, who want always to be liked.
There are two natural questions to ask about Bridgegate. The first is: what did the governor know and when did he know it? The second is: what does this affair tell us about the administration that Christie is running in Trenton?
The information to answer the first question isn’t publicly available, so all we can co is speculate. As Democratic legislator John Wisniewski sees it, “It strains credibility [sic] to say that somebody in as high a position as a deputy chief of staff, somebody in as high a position as the governor’s principal spokesperson…didn’t ever communicate this to the governor. “ Fair enough, but to say “It strains credulity…” is not quite the same as saying “It is inconceivable….” Christie claims that he called a meeting of his top staff a month ago to ask if any of them had anything to do with the lane closings, and no one spoke up. I don’t think he could be making that up, though it is conceivable that the whole thing was more or less an act, and Christie knew the script.
On the other hand, it is quite possible that Bridget Anne Kelly, the deputy chief of staff, was savvy enough to ensure that her boss had plausible deniability. A good subordinate knows how to read her boss’s cues; she knows what he likes and wants, and knows that sometimes he can’t be personally involved in getting it. So she gets it done herself, letting him keep his hands clean. Maybe Christie had some idea that his staff were going to go after the mayor of Fort Lee in some way, and didn’t ask any questions. He could even have told his staff: “I wanna get that guy, and I don’t care and don’t wanna know how you do it.” The obverse of plausible deniability is willful ignorance.
The second question is more open-ended, but there is certainly enough information, based not only on this but on previous incidents, to answer it with some confidence. The Christie administration reflects Christie’s personality and values. His aides see politics, at least as far as the governor is concerned, as war: critics and opponents must be crushed. The Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum quoted a reader of his who started out citing the now infamous e-mail exchange and then went on perceptively to draw inferences:
Bridget Anne Kelly: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
David Wildstein: “Got it.”
Does this exchange sound like it’s between two people who are suggesting a new and novel way to screw their political opponents, or between two people who have clearly done this before?
If I’m working in the governor’s office[*] and someone sends me an email saying “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee!” I’d probably email back something like, “What are you talking about?” or “What happened in Fort Lee that’s causing all the traffic?” Instead, Wildstein knows what she’s getting at right away, and what he’s supposed to do.
Of course, there must have been some in-between e-mails that haven’t been released that enabled Wildstein to “get it” so quickly, but the observation remains valid: Christie’s people treated the sabotage of Fort Lee traffic as a normal act of political combat. No one needed to tell them what to do; they knew what they had to do, which is why Christie didn’t have to know.
* Actually, Wildstein was working in the Port Authority, as a Christie political appointee.