What is political "hardball"?
I ask in light of another story -- this one in the New York Times -- on the Chris Christie administration's political tactics in New Jersey. Once again, the spotlight falls on Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, who was previously accused by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, a Democrat, of tying Hurricane Sandy recovery funds for Hoboken to Zimmer's approval of a real-estate development deal.
The latest Times story says Guadagno smeared an ethically fastidious artist who worked for low wages on a state contract. She did this presumably as part of an effort to seize control of the "rogue" New Jersey State Council on the Arts. The Newark Star-Ledger, evaluating Guadagno's attacks on the council for "breach of trust," had compared her efforts to "a witch hunt or a smear campaign."
There are two striking points about this. First, it reveals how potentially devastating the George Washington Bridge scandal is to Christie; it has opened the gates not only to new allegations, such as Zimmer's complaint about being shaken down by the lieutenant governor, but also to the resurfacing of old allegations, which are being reviewed in a new, far harsher, context. By the time all these stories are collated by investigators, the picture of the New Jersey governor is unlikely to be flattering.
Second, it portrays a political culture that seems out of political bounds. A story last week in the Washington Post dredged up a Christie political ad from his 1994 race for a seat on a county board. The article casts the ad as part of Christie's history of playing hardball. But the ad is not really an example of hardball. It's simply false, defamatory and, as a result, arguably incompetent.
It was 1994, and Christie was a 31-year-old lawyer running for the county board in suburban Morris County, N.J. He was making a television ad, saying to the camera that his opponents were “being investigated by the Morris County prosecutor.”
Actually, they weren’t. But Christie’s inaccurate ad ran more than 400 times on cable TV before the June GOP primary. He won.
People have very low opinions of political advertising, and justifiably so. But blatantly false political ads are actually pretty rare. For one, political rhetoric is so flexible, and factual standards so ambiguous, that there is no reason to make obviously false statements in an ad. You can impugn an opponent's character thousands of ways before it's ever necessary to resort to a clearly, demonstrably, factually false claim. Saying your opponents are under investigation by a local prosecutor when they are not is obviously dishonest. But saying it on television is also a little nutty. Was that potentially self-damaging lie really his only chance of winning?
You can watch the 1994 Christie ad here. There is something else unusual about it. Christie is seated on a sofa next to his wife and baby as he defames his two opponents. (They subsequently sued Christie, who issued an apology two years later.) Who does that? Who holds his baby and then turns to the camera to lie flagrantly?
If there is a connection between Babygate and Bridgegate, it's not really "hardball." Hardball is played all over, and sometimes it's nasty business. Christie is playing something more like Weirdball. Excessive-and-unnecessary-and-probably-pointless-ball. A candidate with genuine political talent telling an easily verifiable lie in a television ad (which, as the Post story makes clear, still has the capacity to dog him two decades later)? Jamming traffic on the nation's busiest bridge?
I don't know how the Christie saga will turn out. But there is definitely something peculiar about the guy in Trenton.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)