Perhaps the greatest damage that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has done, other than to his own reputation, is to expose something that turns out to be quite common in Republican governance: the politics of coercion.
Indeed, as accusations of political bullying mount, it’s becoming clear that whether or not the governor ordered, or even knew in advance about the incidences of Democrats shoved against the proverbial wall for not doing whatever it is the governor preferred, the atmosphere in the New Jersey Capitol was one of coercive, rather than discursive, political diplomacy.
That clearly undermines Christie’s prime selling point to the national Republican Party and its donors: that he is a guy who can bring Democrats to the table. As it turns out, dragging Democrats to the table under threat of billions of dollars in economic (or traffic) pain isn’t exactly the kind of bipartisanship independent voters in a presidential election would likely be looking for.
Christie could go a long way toward reversing the perception among some Republican politicos (Mitt Romney supporters, for example) that he is a fundamentally selfish actor by removing himself from the leadership of the Republican Governor’s Association — something failed Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, a guy with perception problems of his own, suggested this week. But given Christie’s high level of self-regard, that may not be in the cards.
By staying on, Christie will continue to be the awkward guest at the gubernatorial fundraiser — about as popular a date as indicted ex-Virginia governor Bob McDonnell. And his presence will tend to serve as an unpleasant reminder of the sins of his host. Rick Scott, most recently, didn’t appear with Christie when the RGA head came to Florida to raise funds for the governor’s re-election campaign, but that didn’t stop people from snickering over the irony that the Medicare-fraud guy thought he was too good for the traffic bully.
The fact is that coercive politics isn’t exactly unique to Chris Christie. It’s a part of the larger branding problem for the Republican Party, which is viewed by pluralities of Americans — including self-identified Republicans — as too inflexible, and unwilling to compromise; the two terms most identified with the party in the most recent Gallup polling.
Meanwhile, Republican voters are becoming more hardline, particularly on fiscal and social issues, putting their politicians in the bind of serving a base that demands doctrinaire behavior on government spending, or abortion, but criticizes those same leaders for not being able to bring the other side around.
At the federal and state levels, Republican leaders, particularly since the 2010 midterms, and cheered on by Fox News and other right-wing media, have made the calculation that thanks to their big wins on gerrymandering — and aided by aggressive voting restrictions aimed at Democratic voters — they will be rewarded, or at least not punished, for striking an inflexible pose.
And so you have Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder overseeing a wildly undemocratic system of “managers” who cancel the results of local elections and replace mayors and school board members with the dictates of a single, unelected bureaucrat, with the power to void union contracts, sell off assets and render democracy moot in any town or city declared fiscally insolvent.
You get 205 separate state abortion restrictions in just the three-year period from 2011 to 2013 — more than passed in the decade before, with the goal of crowding out all options for women besides bringing an unwanted pregnancy to term. These include ritual humiliations like forced vaginal probes, and a push to erase the invisible wall between women entering health clinics and the activists screaming at — and in some cases threatening — them and their doctors.
It includes negating union contracts for state employees, including teachers in Wisconsin, and firefighters and police officers in Ohio, where voters soundly rejected and reversed Gov. John Kasich’s attempt to emulate Scott Walker and the Wisconsin legislature’s strong-arm tactics, whose ultimate aim is to neutralize the one group capable of matching the political spending of the right wing.
And it includes withholding healthcare from millions of their own citizens by rejecting the expansion of Medicaid, or shutting down the federal government, in a vain effort to kill a federal healthcare law Republicans in Congress couldn’t defeat through traditional political means.
Chris Christie may have been a bolder practitioner of the politics of coercion. But his style of politics is a feature, not a bug, of modern-day Republicanism.