“Bridge-gate” and the Culture of Political Combat

“Bridge-gate” and the Culture of Political Combat

One of the ironies of contemporary political scandals is that, if they involve improper conduct and some sense of a cover-up, they acquire the suffix “gate.”

Who could have imagined that a bungled political burglary back in the early 1970s would lead to the fall of a sitting president . . . and would give to American political discourse an enduring “brand” for a particular kind of scandal?

Of course, the original “gate” wasn’t about anything having to do with a gate, or with exercising control over the comings and goings of others. Watergate was (and is) the name of the complex where the burglary occurred. I’m not even certain there is a water gate anywhere in or near the complex.

Still . . . if it’s a scandal with a cover-up, it’s a “gate.”

Which leads us to the latest of these “gates,” which actually is about doing what gates are designed to do: restricting the flow of movement through some corridor or passageway.

If the accepted account of the traffic nightmare that the good people of Fort Lee, N.J., experienced is essentially correct, members of Governor Chris Christie’s staff ordered lanes closed without so much as a plausible pretense for doing so (a “traffic study” . . . really? You close lanes for a traffic study?). This is like the blitzing football player who plows full-speed, shoulder down, into the quarterback . . . after he’s already on the ground.  One suspects the refs will see that, and call it for what it is.

If this is an accurate account (and I’m betting at this point that it is), it is illustrative of the darkest side of what has long been a rough and at times dirty business: the politics of perks and punishments.

Everyone who has extensive dealings with city hall, the county courthouse, the legislature, the governor’s office, congress or the federal bureaucracy can tell stories about the importance of whose team you are on, at least under certain circumstances.  Maybe it’s just that you get your calls answered more quickly. Maybe you get a head’s up before something happens. Or maybe someone tips the scales, for you or against you.

I’m not endorsing favoritism. I’m acknowledging it. There is always a way, in any process, at some level, for someone somewhere to give a little nudge that might or might not make a difference. It’s at least as common in the private sector as it is in the public sector. That, too, doesn’t make it right . . . just reality.

Where favoritism goes seriously awry is when a player with power forgets the core purposes for which the game is being played. Winning, certainly, but winning for what?

If we play to win an office or a policy fight because we believe that our candidate, or our policy proposal, will serve the people best, we won’t destroy the game, the political process, for the win. As vague at times as the rules may be, our conduct will be circumscribed by them, because the public interest we seek to serve requires it.

But when we play just for spite or pride, we won’t feel so constrained. Anything we can get away with that satisfies our desire for revenge or our power-lust will be in bounds.

Put succinctly, legitimate political considerations may lead to very hard hitting . . . but only arrogance leads to abuse.

When the members of our leadership team demonstrate such arrogance, we have a problem. We absolutely have to clean house. But we also have to question how it was that we allowed someone so motivated to be on our first string . . . and what part we may have played in that motivation.

2 Responses to “Bridge-gate” and the Culture of Political Combat

  • Richard L. Block

    Dear Scott, My problem is that there are mortal and venial sins in politics. What we got in New Jersey is a venial sin with the press and political enemies calling for all to be thrown in that great lake of fire. What we have in Washington DC are a multitude of mortal sins with the press and perpetrators declaring no sin at all and not taking responsibility for their actions.

    • Dr. Scott Paine

      Richard,
      Certainly there are degrees of ‘sin’ or offensiveness or seriousness. Not sure what the standard is by which we draw distinctions, but certainly degree of harm must be one. I, too, can think of some much more harmful abuses of power. Maybe the Fort Lee episode is more a cautionary tale than anything else . . . At least for those of us who don’t live in Fort Lee!