The art of score-keeping

Masters of leverage, from left: Hillary Clinton, ex-Pa. House Speaker John M. Perzel, ex-State Sen. Vince Fumo.
Masters of leverage, from left: Hillary Clinton, ex-Pa. House Speaker John M. Perzel, ex-State Sen. Vince Fumo.

A little revenge-motivated politics, properly targeted and timed, can be effective - or not.

Posted: January 27, 2014

When a student at Dudley Elementary School in Camden asked Gov. Christie on Thursday what his favorite movie was, you might have guessed where things were headed.

" The Godfather," Christie replied. "There are a lot of life lessons in there."

This was perhaps fitting, since the Republican governor stands accused of running his administration like a mob family, scattering a trail of (figuratively) whacked enemies across New Jersey.

Christie's predicament shines a light on the dark art of political retribution. As it happens, he may be running for president in 2016 against Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, portrayed in a new book as a master of that art herself.

Her aides went so far as to codify in an Excel spreadsheet a list of Democrats who had betrayed her in her first run for president in 2008, according to HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton, by journalists Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen.

Among those on the enemies list were Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), one of the earliest members of Congress to endorse Barack Obama, and Rep. Rob Andrews (D., N.J.), whose sin apparently was to urge the party to unite around Obama when it became clear that Hillary was going to finish a close second in the primaries.

Democratic insiders know that the Clintons, both the former secretary of state and her husband, the former president, have long memories, particularly for ingrates who have received favors from them in the past.

And the threat of retribution apparently came naturally to Hillary Clinton at an important moment earlier in her career. As first lady in 1993, she promised to wreak vengeance on Democratic senators who were questioning her about the health-care overhaul she was then championing - she said the administration would "demonize" those who opposed the plan, according to Carl Bernstein's 2007 biography, A Woman in Charge.

Perhaps that's where retribution goes too far - when it gets too personal. What did Christie's crew gain by lashing the lowly mayor of Fort Lee? What cause did Clinton advance by insulting U.S. senators?

"That was it for me in terms of Hillary Clinton," then-Sen. Bill Bradley, a New Jersey Democrat, told Bernstein years later. "You don't tell members of the Senate you are going to demonize them."

In Philadelphia, few have equaled former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo's relentless pursuit of retribution against his political enemies.

One small but instructive example from 2000: Fumo wanted a vacant former school and convent in Queen Village as the site for a new charter school; he and various emissaries pressed the owner to sell it to a nonprofit Fumo controlled for $600,000, but the owner held out for more than $1 million. An angry Fumo maneuvered allies on a city board to more than double the owner's property taxes by changing the assessment. (Fumo is currently completing his 55-month federal corruption sentence under house arrest in his Fairmount home.)

In the state House in Harrisburg, former Speaker John M. Perzel, a powerful Republican from Northeast Philadelphia, was known for running attack robocalls against his own rank-and-file members as punishment for voting against leadership. Democratic House leaders also exacted revenge on wayward members in that era - by cutting office space, committee assignments, or staff.

Public protestations over the Christie administration's closing of local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge aside, historians know that a little retributive politics, properly targeted and timed, can be useful in making the system work and getting things done - along with retribution's cousin, legal inducement. (Just ask Fumo: His razor-sharp legislative staff's motto was, "We get s- done.")

Some have speculated that a little more rough-and-tumble in the back rooms might end Washington gridlock. After all, the elimination of budgetary earmarks has defanged legislative leaders because they can no longer award, or take away as punishment, funding for lawmakers' pet projects. In addition, President Obama has often been diffident about wielding power to force his will on Congress.

Would there still be a showdown over the debt ceiling every few months if there were bridge lanes and edifices at stake?

The news media, good-government watchdog groups, tea partyers, and many politicians railed against business-as-usual earmarks, and they were banned. Yet the liberal application of those goodies had been considered crucial to some of the biggest legislation of the last two decades: the North American Free Trade Agreement and the prescription-drug Medicare benefit.

The late Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, at the time a Republican, understood leverage. When Obama's federal stimulus program was in jeopardy, Specter cut a deal with the White House to cast the crucial vote for the bill - in exchange for $10 billion in increased funding for cancer research at the National Institutes of Health.

Threats can help advance goals, too. After the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., public pressure built for legislation to expand the system of background checks for gun purchasers. Though popular in polls, the measure failed, in part because of the certainty that the National Rifle Association and other Second Amendment rights groups would punish lawmakers who broke ranks to vote for it - with millions in ads, a grassroots army, and maybe even a primary opponent.

"Bridgegate" and related disclosures appear to have damaged Christie's once-magical favorability rating, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll released last week. Forty-six percent of voters viewed the governor favorably, to 43 percent who had a negative view of him - compared with 65 percent positive, 27 percent negative just before Christie's landslide reelection.

The shift was led by a 26 percent drop in his favorable rating among Democrats. In essence, pollster David Redlawsk said, Christie lost the glow he enjoyed as a unifying leader after Hurricane Sandy, and has been recast as just another partisan politician.

As Christie puts his head down and tries to bull through the crisis by doing his job, he might want to heed the life lesson contained in something Michael Corleone said in Christie's favorite movie: It's not personal, strictly business.



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