Chris Christie outbluffs himself

Published 11:00 pm Friday, June 7, 2013

In Washington, D.C., every sentence has a subtext, every question hides another question, and you have to know how to read between the lines. Thus, in Washington-speak, “Sen. Frank Lautenberg passed away at the age of 89,” also means, “Who’s replacing Lautenberg?”

It’s a question that only New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie could answer. And it wasn’t easy.

First, Lautenberg, who served five terms, was highly respected and was the last veteran of World War II still serving in the Senate.

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Second, there is the inevitable tension between political interest and public interest. While they often coincide, every elected official must make choices and trade-offs. After all, the “public” has many interests, and a politician out of office can’t serve any of them.

Third, there’s the partisan divide. Or, I should say, the hyperpartisan divide that’s defining the country these days. Ethan J. Leib, a law professor at Fordham Law School, and Michael Serota, a criminal law attorney, wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Christie has exhibited a capacity to act above the fray of partisan politics and outside the strictures of naked self-interest.”

Leib and Serota were probably referring to Christie’s political embrace of President Obama after Hurricane Sandy. That working relationship has continued as New Jersey continues to recover. And given how Christie has been pilloried by Republicans for (gasp) working with Obama for the needs of the people, not party, that capacity to “act above the fray” surely is real.

However, Christie is still a politician, and a very ambitious one. And ambition sometimes blinds us to all interests, even our own best.

Christie has presidential ambitions. He already is attracting some Democratic support. But to be elected president in 2016, he’ll need more than funding from some Democratic donors; he’ll need Democratic votes. Lots of them.

That means he’ll need a very large margin of victory in his re-election bid this November — electoral proof of his across-the-aisle appeal.

Therein was his dilemma: He could appoint a replacement to fill out the rest of Lautenberg’s term. The election for a new senator would then take place in November of 2014. Or he could hold a special election this year. Both had political disadvantages.

Appointing a temporary fill-in might cost Christie support and create potential enemies. New Jersey voters haven’t sent a Republican to the Senate since 1972. And picking a Republican wouldn’t help him too much with his own party. The Star-Ledger quoted former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean Jr. saying, “A lot of distinguished people wanted to be considered. You make one friend and 30 enemies.”

Appointing a Democrat was out of the question — bipartisanship goes only so far. The argument that since Lautenberg was a Democrat, and in his memory and to honor the voters’ choice Christie should appoint a Democrat to replace him, would make him a pariah in the Republican Party. (Or more of one.)

Besides, Democrats were demanding a special election this fall. New Jersey Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney told the Star-Ledger, “It needs to happen in November … you cannot disenfranchise voters for 17 or 18 months.”

So what’s the problem? Why not hold a special election this November? Because, as mentioned, to fuel his presidential ambitions, Christie needs to be re-elected by a big margin this November. But if there’s a special election for the Senate, it endangers the potential landslide: All those Democrats at the polls, attracted to the Senate race may well vote for Christie’s opponent in the governor’s race. In a bit of understatement, Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, explains that “holding the election in 2014 would also remove some complications to Christie’s re-election bid.”

Christie decided to split the difference: The Senate primary would be this August, and the special election this October — three weeks before Election Day. A special election doesn’t create new enemies within his party, and holding it before the general election prevents a potential surge of Democrats voting for Christie’s opponent in November. Everyone wins, especially Christie.

So why is everybody — Democrats, Republicans and independents, alike — mad at him? Because they all see through the ruse: Despite Christie’s protest that the timing honors Lautenberg, it’s clear that it only serves Christie’s ambitions.

The special election will be a hassle and cost a lot of money; New Jersey’s nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services says the special election will cost the state nearly $12 million. After all, poll workers have to be paid (state law requires no fewer than four at each voting location), ballots printed, voting machines moved, polling places rented, etc.

Since, as The New York Times reports, Christie balanced his budget on predicted tax revenue, the unexpected — and unnecessary — cost means more budget cuts.

Alexander Pope wrote: “The same ambition can destroy or save, and make a patriot as it makes a knave.” Christie, who has built a reputation for acting in the voters’ interests regardless of party interests, should remember this.

(Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.)