New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, he of possible presidential aspirations, may well have wanted to start 2014 in the national news cycle, but not quite this way. In a span of just a week earlier this month, Christie found himself at the center of two scandals: his office’s involvement in lane closures that created massive traffic delays at the George Washington Bridge, a brewing controversy that he had managed to plausibly deny until the press got a hold of text messages and e-mails to the contrary; and his use of federal Sandy aid to shoot a series of commercials starring him and his family, spending now under federal review. The two scandals may not seem similar; one is about political retribution, the other about potentially inappropriate spending. Both are also, however, about the abuse of power. And, more importantly, both illustrate flaws in government far more than they do flaws in Christie.
The recently re-elected Republican governor spent two hours apologizing for the bridge scandal, to the commuters affected by the traffic jam, to the city of Fort Lee that was targeted, to New Jersey, to the state legislature. Some pundits believe his apology underscores a key difference from the current president, that being the ability to take responsibility for the actions of subordinates. Others have written off his presidential ambitions. Still others insist he’s going to have to change his style. But, as former White House chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel famously said, you never let a good crisis go to waste. And in Christie’s case, both of his crises present an opportunity for the not-so-small government Republican to earn some small government credentials. After all, neither scandal would be possible without government that’s grown out of control.
Christie’s apology, delivered in his usual winded style, may placate his supporters. Some may even believe he won’t let an abuse of power like the lane closures happen again under his watch. It’s not enough. Right now, the scandal is about Christie — what he knew and when, and the kind of people he’s surrounded himself with who would find it wise to cause a traffic jam to settle a political score and then text and e-mail about it. But the scandal shouldn’t be about him. Christie ought to redirect the focus of the scandal where it belongs, on the Port Authority. The scandal, ultimately, is that officials of New Jersey’s government can get the lanes to the George Washington bridge, the busiest in the world, shut down if they so please. Consider: Had Christie been able to produce an actual traffic study and point to it as the reason for the lane closures (the original excuse), that would’ve been the end of the matter. New Jersey can close several lanes of the busiest bridge in the world over a traffic study, if it so pleases. That’s wrong.
As Reason’s Jim Epstein pointed out in a Daily Beast column this week, the Port Authority is a product of the Progressive Era and its belief that policymaking ought to be in the hands of top men not accountable to democratic processes. The Port Authority was pretty much founded to prevent exactly the kind of shenanigans in which Christie’s aides partook. Connected as it still is to the political power structures in New Jersey and New York, that the Port Authority would end up being plagued with the corruption and cronyism it was meant to end should come as no surprise. But Christie can do something about it, apart from firing aides and promising higher quality appointees to the agency. He could advocate for the privatization of the Port Authority, taking the power to use bridges and tunnels for political ends away from politicians altogether. In his column, Epstein relays the ideas of Bob Poole, the transportation policy director for the Reason Foundation, who suggests “project finance,” an approach by which local governments essentially cede the task of building up infrastructure to private companies, who then use the associated tolls and user fees to recoup their investment. In fact, the Reason Foundation is at the forefront of developing privatization-centered transportation policy, to the benefit of governments, residents, and private companies alike when implemented. It’s what the Foundation does.
The controversy over the use of Sandy aid to film a commercial starring Christie and his family may be harder to square away, but it’s certainly not impossible. Ron Paul consistently secured earmarks for his constituents even as he voted against the bills those earmarks were attached to, under the theory that his job is to get as much of his constituents’ tax money back to the district as possible. No matter, say Paul's staunchest defenders.
Christie is certainly no Paul, but everyone starts somewhere. Christie’s advocacy to get as much federal money for his constituents for Sandy as he could is arguably a part of his job, too. And it’s part of the president's and the Congress’ jobs to spend federal money wisely. Christie contends the ad company he chose, though more expensive, did not actually pitch his family as stars in the contract they won, but that Christie's family was a last minute replacement when the company couldn't secure a New Jerey celebrity. The federal money used on those ads was, in fact, set aside by the feds exactly for that purpose: tourism marketing. Mull that one over; federal aid supporters in Congress insisted it was absolutely necessary for funds specifically allocated by the federal government to be used on ads to encourage tourism to the Jersey Shore. Tourism advertisements are something the shore’s stakeholders — be they local companies, community associations, or even local governments or the state government — ought to pay for, not the federal government and, by extension, the U.S. taxpayer. Christie ought to make sure this point isn’t lost.
If the argument that taking the money is what the people of New Jersey elected him for is not without some merit, what’s the scandal here? What is a federal inspector general investigating? That Christie spent $4.7 million on an ad whose producers decided to go with Christie and family after failing to secure celebrities like Bruce Springsteen, instead of spending a couple million less on another ad company.
The feds aren't investigating that they allocated $25 million in the first place for New Jersey to spend on promoting tourism as part of a package advertised as relief and recovery aid. Christie could reach out to an opponent of such wanton disaster spending, like Rand Paul, another would-be presidential contender, and admit there's a problem in the way the federal government disburses post-disaster that has a corrosive effect on state politics, tempting, forcing even, governors to seek money they know is coming from the feds and contribute to the cycle of big government spending. Christie and Paul may be foes, but coming together on this issue would show Americans that both can rise above intrapartisan fighting to focus on a serious issue like out-of-control government spending. Such a focus would be good for the Republican party, and good for the cause of securing America's fiscal future.
Christie’s detractors in the press suggest disowning his confrontational, even aggressive, style is the only way past the scandals in which he’s embroiled. But that’s an indictment of the lower-order thinking that unfortunately defines American politics. Using these crises, instead, to reflect on and push back against big government would help Christie position himself as a serious candidate. It won’t transform him into a small government conservative overnight, but you lose weight one pound at a time, and there are still two long years before the 2016 primary season begins. Admittedly, Christie may not be interested in being a small government conservative. In that case, he might be better off trying to run for president as a Democrat.