January 13, 2014 / 11:27 PM / 4 years ago

COLUMN-Punitive politics: Bigger than Christie

By Nicholas Wapshott

Jan 13 (Reuters) - There is a “Sopranos” episode where a deal for a beachfront house on the Jersey shore goes awry at the last minute and Tony Soprano decides to punish the reluctant seller for changing his mind. He sends a couple of mobsters in a boat mounted with giant speakers to remind the recalcitrant homeowner of the wonders of the Italian popular songbook played at full volume. When it comes to ingenious punishments, Jersey leads the field.

What no one has yet explained about the intentional four-day traffic jam levied on the good people of Fort Lee, New Jersey, at the George Washington Bridge, is the real reason the punishment was exacted.

Was it to hurt the mayor by making his constituents so angry they would, in some future ballot, blame it all on him? Was it to punish the voters for choosing a mayor who declined to back Governor Chris Christie’s re-election? Other possible theories have also been suggested. But in any case, closing the traffic lanes would hardly seem an effective way of exacting revenge.

One thing is clear. Using the good offices of the state to punish a person or persons is broadly considered beyond the pale - which is why Christie is in such a precarious position. If any link is established between him and this act of punitive politics, or if there is any attempt to cover up any link between him and the order to squeeze three lanes of traffic into one for four long days, the Republicans’ brightest 2016 hope is toast.

The principle of punishing political opponents, however, is long established.

Congress has yet to approve the extension of welfare payments for the long-term unemployed, for example. Perhaps Republicans who object to extending unemployment benefits have concluded that those without jobs will never vote for them. That is likely, considering that the GOP has placed unemployment at the bottom of their concerns - way behind paying off the national debt and restricting the size of federal spending.

Their argument appears to be that only by making the lives of the unemployed more difficult will the jobless be goaded into finding work. What better way to solve a difficult problem than to punish the victims?

Those who are against continuing the payments say it is a principled objection, that after awhile unemployment payments deter the jobless from finding a job.

For the unemployed, however, who find themselves too old or in the wrong place to find work, to be deprived of material help at such a difficult time is simply to be punished.

A similar approach to opponents can be found in the sequester, the arbitrary slashing of public spending. The sequester was not intended to be put into force. The scale of the cuts was considered so deep, so harsh on those who would be hit - so punitive - that neither side believed the other would allow it to be implemented. The fact that defense was targeted along with general welfare payments was meant to ensure equal misery was at stake.

Yet, even after the recent budget deal reduced some of the sequester’s more glaring iniquities, the tough cuts are still being made. Since the victims are either on welfare or public sector workers in uniform, a similar conclusion may be drawn: Innocent Americans are being punished to satisfy the political imperative of reducing federal debt.

If the abolition of long-term unemployment pay and the imposition of the sequester are not punishing enough, perhaps the most obviously inequitable piece of public policy is the widespread restrictions on voting rights under the guise of reducing voter fraud. Though there have been few, if any, cases of voter fraud in the states concerned, a number of Republican-controlled legislatures have passed tough new rules demanding the presentation of a state or federal ID card at a polling station, the limitation of early voting and the reduction of the length of time polling stations are open. All the new limits on voting target the same Americans - African-American, Latino or poor voters.

Again, Republicans appear to have concluded that those they deprive of the vote would not have voted for them in any case. Indeed, that fact - confirmed by the 2012 general election exit polls - seems to be the main reason to act. It is a flagrant act of political intimidation, in which political enemies are punished simply for being themselves.

Posing as an electoral spring clean, the very notion of deterring opponents from voting runs contrary to every democratic instinct to get out the vote and maximize involvement.

So why have the shenanigans in Fort Lee been seen in a different light? The answer, I suspect, is the scale of the operation.

Who can really imagine the plight of hundreds of thousands of jobless who get up every morning and look in vain for work? Who can envision a military family that finds itself on a hurriedly drawn up list of those not essential to serve anymore? Who can grasp what it is to be genuinely dependent on welfare but to find that the payments have dried up without explanation? Who can imagine traveling hours to vote, only to discover that an official is demanding yet another piece of paper?

In Fort Lee, however, no imagination is necessary. We have all spent hours sitting in traffic - wondering what went wrong, whether there is another route, whether it is worth calling ahead to say we’ll be late. Over the course of the four days of hell on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge, thousands of frustrated parents couldn’t get their children to school on time, thousands of irritable children sat grumbling in the back seats, thousands of businesses wasted money on trucks going nowhere fast.

Few stuck in a jam take it personally. As former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, “Stuff happens.” But in this case, the Fort Lee bridge hostages were being punished without trial by Christie’s aides - though they could not guess why.

There was no deterrence value in closing the bridge lanes. No one could learn from the jam how to avoid future punishments. The decision was petulant, vindictive, petty and excessive.

The fact that it was made anonymously - and was intended to remain anonymous - shows how much Bridgegate was intended as an act of pure spite.

Some people stuck in traffic, though, take it personally. They are so aware they are simply pawns in a much bigger game, nothing bad that happens to them is seen as accidental. It is a strange take on life, to be sure. And one tinged with paranoia. Was that sudden rainstorm really an act of nature - or was someone behind it?

Just such a person is Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who as a putative 2016 presidential hopeful stands to benefit from Christie’s demise. When asked about the jam, Paul said, “I have been in traffic before though and I know how angry I am when I‘m in traffic and I’ve always wondered, ‘Who did this to me?'”

Usually, Paul’s visceral fear of an over-reaching bullying state is far-fetched. For once, however, he asked exactly the right question.

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