Even as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's headaches over the George Washington Bridge scandal mount rapidly, it is really the Republican mentality that should be blamed for what happened.
Like anyone else, Christie certainly deserves the presumption of innocence, even if the situation stretches the imagination. And speaking as a Democrat, Christie is one of the few Republicans whom I would not be terrified to see in the White House in 2016 (unlike a Ted Cruz, a Mike Huckabee, or even a Marco Rubio). It is unlikely but certainly possible that Christie was unaware of the real motive behind the bridge lane closings, and it is not impossible that an overzealous underling took the initiative and crossed the line in order to impress their boss.
But regardless of what Christie's exact culpability here is -- whether it is knowingly meting out political retribution, turning a blind eye to the actions of his Deputy Chief of Staff, or just being shockingly clueless -- the fact that this happened should not be a surprise since this type of behavior is actually encouraged by the GOP. I am not saying that the GOP condones illegal traffic closures but that the culture of the party considers retribution, no matter how petty, a badge of honor. Fort Lee is not New York City and its mayor is not exactly a figure of national importance and yet Christie's team thought it worth their while to punish him for refusing to support the governor in the last election.
This is a symptom of the disease that has plagued the Republican Party since the rise to prominence of Newt Gingrich decades ago and when our politics took an unprecedentedly ugly turn. Simply put, today's GOP is no longer content to promote a conservative agenda but needs to destroy the liberal agenda in order to feel good. Nowhere was this dangerous militancy more visible than during the 2010 midterm elections and over the issue of Obamacare: from bullseyes over Democratic candidate's names on Facebook and nasty personal threats against challengers to the out-of-control and violent behavior of Tea Partiers during town hall meetings and elections, the GOP has systematically forged a culture of belligerence and bullying that has now become the norm.
Hence the Chris Christie mess. When a political party does not believe in defeating challengers but in decimating them instead, and makes the issue personal, then we stop having politics and start having political circus -- and that is exactly what happened here. Christie's team decided that it was acceptable to hurt thousands of innocent people in order to punish one Democrat, and to do it by shutting down traffic! If it was not so serious, the whole episode would be satire. The GOP's meanness finally met up with its stupidity and this is what resulted.
Still, while traffic closures may not quite rise to the level of mobsters breaking legs or throwing people into concrete mixers, that does not mean that what Christie's administration did was a minor infraction. While the facts are still coming in, it is pretty clear that the lane closures put people's lives at risk by restricting access for emergency personnel, resulted in many millions of lost business productivity, and could have hurt many people in a variety of ways. The potential for great harm was there, and that is the point.
Chris Christie is one of the few Republicans who stood a viable chance in the next presidential elections and while he may still remain a contender, the stink of this scandal will not go away easily. Not because of Christie himself but because this incident is simply one more of many such shameful acts committed by Republican politicians over the years, and one that points to a an abusive mentality in the GOP itself.
SANJAY SANGHOEE is a political and business commentator. He has worked at leading investment banks Lazard Freres and Dresdner, as well as at multi-billion dollar hedge fund Ramius. His opinion pieces appear in Christian Science Monitor, TIME, Bloomberg Businessweek, FORTUNE, and Huffington Post, and he has appeared on CNBC's 'Closing Bell', MSNBC's 'The Cycle', TheStreet.com, and HuffPost Live on business topics. He is also the author of two thriller novels.
For more information, please visit www.sanghoee.com