The Third Motive: Christie scandal builds bridge to regional stereotypes
January 14, 2014
Let's say you are on the Jasper County Republican Central Committee.
You're rolling over the 2016 GOP presidential candidates.
And you really like Paul Ryan. He's earnest. Intelligent. And focused on fiscal matters, the neutering of big government.
But suppose New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie navigates his troubled bridge over presidential waters. He's a runner for the Iowa Caucuses.
Do you dare not support him? Do you snub Christie's lieutenants and endorse Ryan? I mean, what if Christie is elected president?
You know it's coming, that wintery morning email - "Time for some snow-clearing problems in Newton." Wham! Hawkeye fans in Des Moines on their way to Iowa City will hit Ice Road Trucker conditions in Newton, and some flack at Christie's U.S. Department of Transportation will say, "Tough, there's a study under way of what happens to Interstate traffic when snow isn't cleared for 10 days. Will people really drive north to use Highway 30 instead? We just wanted to check. Now go shovel yourself out, hick."
Chris Christie may yet emerge from the George Washington Bridge scandal with life as a White House aspirant. But his opportunity in Iowa, already something of a stretch, is forever imperiled.
Our politics is so obsessed with zero-summing in the two-party system that often we forget the influence of regionalism.
The reason Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman and 2012 vice presidential candidate, connects naturally in Iowa is his unmistakable Midwestern bearing.
You know the guy - even if you don't.
Meanwhile, the Christie episode - in which a top staff member of his and key appointees were involved in creating surprise traffic jams for apparent political payback - reinforces what Midwesterners suspect about New Jersey - that people there always have an angle, usually something of the small-minded, score-settling variety. People do things to each other out there in the big cities of the East Coast that just don't occur to us in Iowa, never climb into our minds even as possibilities.
The New York City region is an expensive place to visit, and the way elected officials (and organized crime) do business no doubt bears some serious responsibility for the middle-class unfriendliness of economic life there.
Favors and revenge are coins of the realm in politics - in Iowa, too.
But revenge for the sheer sake of it? No outcome for the deliverer? Pain without gain?
In college, I had a fraternity brother we called "The Third Motive." There's what I would do in a situation, and what you would do. But this guy had angles and motives we could never predict. They just never made sense.
For Iowans following this Christie mess the first two words that emerge are "New Jersey."
Christie keynoted U.S. Rep. Steve King's fifth annual Defenders of Freedom event in September 2012. He championed a small-government theme in a colorful speech to a partisan crowd in Sioux City.
"We don't belong to the government, the government belongs to us," Christie said. (Apparently that doesn't extend to bridges.)
Christie, a former U.S. attorney in New Jersey who has served as governor of that state since 2010, said more American politicians need to be able to say one simple word: "no."
"We can all say 'yes,'" Christie said. "The hard thing in politics is to say 'no.'"
Especially if the person saying "no" is a mayor - a Democrat, no less - who wouldn't endorse Christie, or a state senator who wouldn't give Christie the courts he wanted.
At best, Chris Christie had been a curiosity for Iowans. People would go see him speak in much the same way they visit the zoo.
Now, he'd campaign here as a foreigner.
We Iowans are a practical people. What Christie did, either in the form of a winked directive to staff or crafted deniability or asleep-at-the-wheel ignorance, produced no practical political lift for him in any context.
It's Third World pettiness.
New Jersey seems farther away from Iowa today than ever.
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