During his Quixotic bid for the Presidency, Bob Dole often asked, “Where’s the outrage?” If the average voter would only pay attention to Bill Clinton’s personal and political scandals, she would set aside the sweet-talking Arkansan’s handling of the economy and send him back where he belonged: a town called Hope.
The fallout from “Bridgegate” is hardly lacking in outrage- feigned and otherwise. Some have drawn the all-too-predictable allusions to Watergate: a moderate Republican meting out retaliation against political opponents for trivial transgressions. Christie and Co.’s tactics toward the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J. have been depicted as representative of a political operation that brooks no opposition: a machine that rewards its friends and badgers its enemies into submission. Such outrageous behavior should sink a Presidential campaign.
The real political problem Christie faces is not that he’s a bully. The problem he faces is that he’s an incompetent bully. Like a man with a hammer, he always finds someone to nail. Christie only has one set of tools in his arsenal: brickbats, a flamethrower, sarcasm, and the occasional turnpike tragedy.
Sticks can be effective motivators in life and American politics. And let’s be honest with ourselves: we love (or, at least, like) the people who know how to use them well. Millions of us (including the current occupant of the Oval Office) binge watch the menacing Frank Underwood, marveling at his brutal effectiveness on behalf of education reform. We get a kick every time he breaks the fourth wall to take us into his confidence about his latest intrigue. Robert Caro’s thick tomes are bestsellers because they are filled with tale after tale of how LBJ blackmailed, browbeat, intimidated, threatened, coerced, and cajoled his way into Senate mastery.
Presidents who manage to jostle their agendas through the Congress rarely do so by relying on one set of tools alone. While they wield the threat of the veto pen, they also hold out the spoils and sinecures of the budget. No stranger to wielding a big stick, Teddy Roosevelt sometimes preferred to twist tongues instead of arms to get his way. He was the first to recognize the value of the bully pulpit to talk over the Congress and directly communicate with the public.
For all his gubernatorial machismo, Christie’s true appeal to the New Jersey electorate and the national Republican electorate lay in his ability to work across the aisle and begin fixing a state that was arguably the biggest wreck in the country after California. Christie stood out among prospective GOP contenders because of his willingness to prioritize workable solutions over government shutdowns and debt ceiling showdowns in the name of repealing Obamacare.
Using the levers of the state to punish challengers who failed to endorse Christie’s reelection bid was completely unnecessary. Set aside your moral qualms about blatant retaliation against one’s political enemies for a moment. Can anyone count on more than one hand- or finger- when an incumbent mayor’s imprimatur has actually changed somebody’s vote, much less decided an election?
The last Republican president continues to be a drag on the GOP because of his incompetence in office. As evidenced by a series of off-putting gaffes, the last Republican presidential nominee’s ambitions were doomed because of his inability to get his finger on the pulse of popular opinion.
Christie’s bullying seems not just unnecessary, but counterproductive. LBJ bulldozed legislative programs through the Congress that continue to have reverberations. For all of the costs of payback, the ultimate payoff for the re-elected governor’s efforts may be the shortest honeymoon in office since Gerald Ford acceded to the presidency. Given the outcomes of the last two elections, the GOP cannot afford to nominate someone who cannot browbeat an endorsement out of a low-profile politician, much less one who thinks it’s a productive use of his time.
Wolf is a researcher in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Irvine. He has been published in International Security, The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, The Houston Chronicle, Survival, and World Policy Journal, among others. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and can be followed on Twitter @albertwolf82.