Is Bridgegate Politics as Usual, or Beyond the Pale?

Jan 16, 2014Bo Cutter

A perspective on the Christie administration's behavior from someone who's seen firsthand how government operates.

For those who are not familiar with the story -- perhaps that same set of people who in questionnaires do not know where the Mississippi River or the Pacific Ocean is -- Governor Chris Christie's staff created a several-day monstrous traffic jam around the George Washington Bridge last September, apparently to get back at the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey for not supporting the governor for reelection. After denying for months that anything happened, the governor fired everyone he could find, held the world's longest and most lachrymose press conference, denied all knowledge, said he was "very sad," and seemed to conclude that he was the victim here. The poor jerks who sat in traffic for several hours apparently didn't count.

The best and funniest column on this by far was by Gail Collins in Saturday's New York Times; I can't come close to that, so I'll ask the deep questions.

1. What are the odds that Governor Christie is telling the truth when he says he knew nothing?

Zero, or bagel, as they say in the finance business. I suspect he didn't order the dirty deed, but this is exactly the kind of stunt political advisors pull when they're riding high and want to show how tough they are. There would have been lots of smirking around the governor -- remember, at the time they would have been quite proud of it -- and you would have had to be about as unaware as a tree not to notice. The governor is not known for being unaware.

2. Has there been any kind of pattern that might suggest this sort of behavior was part of the governor's genotype?

The only way you can say there was no pattern here is if you are a denier of combinatorial probabilities and a lot of introductory math. The Times has specified several incidents which sure look like revenge bullying. If I give the governor a 60 percent probability that each of these events was not part of a pattern (way above my gut feel), there's still a 92 percent chance that this is all part of a pattern. I'm going with a pattern.

3. Is it surprising that the governor threw everyone on his staff within reach under the bus and denied knowing David Wildstein, a senior staff member and a friend since high school?

Are you kidding me? This is pure "homo politicus" stuff. Take my word on this: there is essentially no one in big-time American politics who wouldn't gut his or her best friend in an instant for almost any temporary advantage. (The high school friend matter is almost too easy. No one in the known universe who graduated from an American high school believed any single word, including "a," "an," and " the," of this story.)

4. Is the actual behavior just life in the big leagues or a touch disturbing?

Certainly this traffic stunt was more inventive than anything I've heard before, and I've been close to this game since 1970. The other acts were nowhere near as clever but seem to be similar to the traffic stunt in two other big ways: they feel out of proportion, and they targeted civilians, not political pros. They imposed large arbitrary penalties on normal professional people who were simply doing their jobs. But I keep coming back to the folks caught in traffic. Let's say 500,000 people were caught in the traffic jams for, say, four additional hours each. That's 2 million traffic jam person-hours. If I value people's time at $20 per hour, that's a $40 million cost, all because someone got angry that a Democratic mayor didn't support a Republican governor who was already winning by a landslide and was simply trying to run up the score. Probably some of the commuters actually lost their jobs because of this.

So ask yourself, if you're just a citizen, and this guy becomes president with a lot more power and lots more reasons to get angry, how likely are you to be collateral damage in some scheme some other political "advisor" comes up with? I think you have to come down on the "disturbing behavior" side. I know "politics ain't bean bag," as Christie said, and if one pol wants to take a whack at another pol, I couldn't care less. But this crosses a lot of lines.

So back to the question in the title. There's no way this is normal behavior for normal human beings. Some of it is very normal for "homo politicus," and for athletes and hedge fund billionaires who feel particularly entitled. But the behavior at the core is way beyond the pale. Life is tough enough without leaders dedicated to getting even at your cost for the tiniest slight or the smallest act of dissent.

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.

Photo via ThinkStock.

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