Friday, January 29, 2010

Obama and Christie: A Study in Contrasts

This post originally appeared as a guest column for In The Lobby.

Wednesday night was certainly an interesting one for political observers in New Jersey. The evening began with the Garden State’s new chief executive, Chris Christie, appearing on New Jersey 101.5 to talk about what he would do in his first year. An hour later, President Barack Obama took to the national airwaves to explain what happened in his first year and how the second will be different.

Both addresses acknowledged what is unquestionably the major underlying failure of government today. As President Obama stated in his State of the Union, “We face more than a deficit of dollars. We face a deficit of trust.” However, the two chief executives demonstrated different approaches to regaining the trust necessary to get us back on the right track.

Governor Christie appeared aggressive and direct in his responses to constituent questions. While he may have been short on details, he was crystal-clear on style. Speaking about some minor cost-cutting measures, he advised listeners that these cuts alone would not close the budget gap, but he showed that he understood the importance of such actions when he said, “I believe that symbolism is important. It says we ‘get it.’”

President Obama’s speech also included statements intended to convey that he “gets it.” For example: “We all hated the bank bailout.” And: “Jobs must be our number one focus in 2010.” He even tried to recast his health reform proposal as primarily a middle class measure. It was a decent speech, but way too long. (And the length only reinforced the sense that he is not focused on key concerns).

One major difference between the president’s and the governor’s broadcasts was the tone. Middle class voters want to know that their elected leaders truly appreciate the problems they face. Christie demonstrated that, while Obama fell short. When the president came to office, there was a sense that his cool demeanor would be an asset in Washington’s overheated partisan environment. His tone is now perceived as an unwillingness to engage in the heat of battle.

Admittedly, the president showed more passion in this speech than in any other past effort. It just wasn’t enough. Sure, he took to task members of both parties in Congress, the Supreme Court, and certain special interests. But if you watched him carefully, he almost seemed uncomfortable uttering those words.

Talking about the financial reform bill, Obama remarked that “The lobbyists are trying to kill it. Well, we cannot let them win this fight.” While it was an admonishment, you couldn’t exactly call it confrontational. Any claims to moral outrage were further undermined when he said, “I’m not interested in punishing banks.”

Well, guess what. The public feels that somebody needs to be punished – or at least appear to be punished. If things are going downhill, there has to be some enemy who is impeding progress.

Here in New Jersey, Governor Christie has been more than willing to identify an enemy of the public good. It’s public employee unions. As one of his first acts in office, he placed these unions under pay-to-play campaign restrictions. He also realizes that he has to cast the enemy carefully, saying, “No one should believe that the views of the teacher’s union are monolithic among teachers.”

Governor Christie also speaks like a man who is not willing to take guff from the legislature. His executive order to keep casinos open in the event of a government shutdown was seen as a shot across the bow for budget negotiations. He has the power of a line-item veto, and every indication is that he will use it. Some in the legislature may view Christie’s approach as paternalistic and condescending. But since a good chunk of New Jersey thinks their legislature is petty, the approach may be justified in the eyes of the public.

By the same token, the reactions of members of Congress to the State of the Union address was viewed by many as adolescent. In this case, though, Barack Obama is viewed as the parent whose threats are not taken seriously. It’s a perception he must change.

Obama has threatened to veto the financial reform bill if it is watered down by lobbyists. Here is one thing he can do to win back the public’s trust. First, clearly – and shrewdly – delineate what reforms are absolutely essential. Second, execute the veto if any are missing from the final bill.

The problem with Obama’s attempt to use his first State of the Union speech to reboot his presidency is that after a year in office, he is now judged by his actions, not by his promises. Obama may be able to claim some accomplishments, but not on his signature issue. The problem for Obama is that he drew the line in the sand on health care, and then he retreated from that line numerous times.

When you fumble on a defining issue, you lose the benefit of the doubt on other proposals. And you certainly don’t get a do-over. Are you taking notes, Governor Christie?

The wave of middle-class voter discontent that carried Obama to the White House in 2008 has now become a tsunami of frustration. It has resulted in Republican takeovers of the governorships in New Jersey and Virginia and the once-unthinkable U.S. Senate victory in Massachusetts. Voters in these states sent a simple message: “You promised that government would become more responsive to the middle class. Not only have you not delivered on that promise, but you haven’t even been trying.”

The public knows that government dysfunction is caused by a failure at all levels, but it’s the guy at the top who must take the blame. A willingness to throw some elbows to ensure that government gets back on course will determine whether both Barack Obama and Chris Christie, as well as the nation and the state, succeed.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

New Governor Compares with John Adams

This post originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Courier-Post.

One of the Christmas presents my daughter received was a bedtime book called “Good Night, New Jersey.” As she unwrapped it, the gift’s giver, my sister, [reflecting on the downhill trend of the state over the past few decades] remarked, “Soon, we’ll all be saying good night to New Jersey.” My sister is not alone. Polls indicate that the vast majority of New Jerseyans believe their elected representatives are more concerned with their own interests than the public’s. To say that the typical Garden State resident is cynical is an understatement.

This is the atmosphere under which Chris Christie took the reins of power last week – a time when trust in government is at a modern-day low. The public is skeptical that anything will change and yet change is exactly what they demand of their new governor.

Change is the word of the day, but the public is not necessarily concerned about specific policy directions or guiding ideologies. More importantly, voters are looking for a change in government responsiveness to the needs of the middle class. With Wall Street bailouts from Washington and special interest giveaways from Trenton, many New Jerseyans wonder why no one in government seems to be looking out for them.

The public is angry and they want someone who can give voice to that anger. The Garden State’s new governor appeared to understand this political reality when he noted that state voters “didn't pick me because they were looking for a subtle approach.”

As I made my way to the state capitol on Tuesday to see Christie sworn in as the state’s 55th Governor, I thought back to my youth, when we would hop the Speedline to Philly for a trip to Independence Hall. In those days, you could walk right into the building and go up to the desks in the Continental Congress chamber. I tended to gravitate to the seat occupied by John Adams, a man not known for taking the subtle approach.

Even with Ben Franklin’s savvy, Thomas Jefferson’s intelligence, and George Washington’s leadership, there is no doubt that the United States of America would not have come into being during that hot 1776 summer without John Adams’ pugnacity.

Adams would never win an award for congeniality, but he understood that nothing would change unless someone was willing to bang some heads together. Chris Christie seems to be cut from a similar cloth.

The question now is whether he can affect the change that voters want. The Monmouth University Polling Institute tracked a panel of voters throughout the fall campaign last year. After the election was over, we asked those voters what Chris Christie’s first task should be as governor.

The top issues named were cutting taxes (23 percent) and cutting spending (20 percent). Accomplishing both is no easy task when times are good. Achieving them during an economic downturn – especially with a legislature controlled by Democrats hostile to many of the program cuts Christie will need to make in order to balance the budget – will be near impossible. However, voters will ultimately judge Christie by his performance on these priorities.

Some people, including a good number of Garden State voters, say that desperate times call for desperate measures. That New Jersey needs someone who, like John Adams, is willing to kick up some dust and make some enemies in service of the greater good.

The tide of change has come to New Jersey. It’s important to remember that Chris Christie did not articulate any specific policy position during the campaign that could be taken as a mandate for action. He was elected to affect more fundamental change – change in how state government is perceived by the people. Chris Christie’s task is to figure out how to successfully ride the wave of change or risk being swept away by it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"Today, Change Has Arrived… "

This post originally appeared as a guest column for In The Lobby.

By all accounts, Tuesday was a good day for Republicans, both in New Jersey and nationally. In New Jersey, Chris Christie took the oath of office, marking the GOP’s first position of power in Trenton since John Bennett’s tenure as Senate Co-President ended with his defeat in 2003.

In Massachusetts, Scott Brown scored an upset win in the battle for Ted Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat, thus breaking the Democrat’s filibuster-proof majority. Many observers will view this win, as well as GOP victories in the Virginia and New Jersey governorships last November, as a repudiation of President Obama’s first year in office. The poll data don’t support such an overgeneralization, but still it’s difficult to ignore that the GOP is a party on the rise.

Republican partisans I have spoken with appear to be positively giddy with thoughts of huge gains in state and Congressional offices this coming November. That may indeed happen. But if it does, there are some cautionary notes for New Jersey’s Republican governor that shouldn’t be ignored.

The elections in Massachusetts, Virginia, and New Jersey had a few things in common. In each, the Democratic candidate, to some degree or another, was perceived as “out of touch” with the middle class. With automaker CEOs flying private jets to Washington to cry poverty and bank executives claiming they are doing “God’s work,” the American people are more than a tad upset with the elite class and all who coddle them.

In this environment, being seen as a working class hero is a decided plus. Scott Brown portrayed himself as a truck driving, blue collar guy. And here in the Garden State, there is no question that Chris Christie is a Jersey boy through and through. But that does not necessarily mean that all “home boy” benefits naturally accrue to the Republicans. It depends on the candidate, not the party label.

The PPP Poll issued Sunday, which accurately predicted a 5 point win for Brown, found that Massachusetts voters actually held a dimmer view of Congressional Republicans (22% favorable to 63% unfavorable) than they did of the Democrats (30% favorable to 55% unfavorable), even while voting to send a Republican to the Senate for the first time since 1978.

Another common thread in these recent elections is that voters are still looking for change. The Christie campaign rode that mantra to victory in Jersey, as did Scott Brown in the Bay State. But remember, voters have been in the mood for change for nearly four years.

They voted for Democrats in 2006 and 2008, and it looks like the tide is turning in the Republicans’ favor this year. But don’t be fooled into thinking this represents an ideological shift in the electorate that will propel the GOP to a lengthy return to power. Voters keep choosing change because they are getting a little punchy. Since they haven’t seen tangible results from the current crop of elected leaders, they will keep voting for change until they get it. If the current dynamic holds, we could potentially see frequent partisan switches in legislative and executive leadership over the next few election cycles.

Therein lies a lesson for New Jersey’s new chief executive. A change in style and rhetoric is not enough. You have to deliver results. At Tuesday night’s inaugural bash in Newark, Governor Christie’s friend, state Senator Joe Kyrillos exulted, “They said it couldn't be done. They said that in New Jersey we couldn't elect a tax-cutting, pro-growth, job-creating governor.”

Well, the jury is still out on that claim. To his credit, Governor Christie acknowledges that when New Jerseyans come up to him, the most frequent message is, “Now, do what you said you would do.” That is not a friendly piece of advice. It is a job requirement. Christie must remember that it was middle-class independent voters who put him into power.

It’s a lesson that the folks in the White House has yet to learn. Look at the drop in Barack Obama’s approval ratings over the first year of his term. GOPers say this is because the American people disagree with his domestic policy agenda. I, on the other hand, view that declining support as the result of a middle-America who feel that the President does not “have their backs.” For example, the economic stimulus package is seen as only benefitting the people who got us into this mess. The re-appointment of Ben Bernanke to head the Federal Reserve Board only underlines that point.

Furthermore, the president lost the health care reform debate not because of any particular policy item – the polls clearly show that Americans have little understanding about what is included in the proposal. Obama’s major mistake was in trying to sell the so-called the societal benefit of insuring the poor. If he had focused his message on keeping big insurance company premiums under control and not arbitrarily denying coverage to hard-working middle class Americans, he probably could have won support for the controversial “public option” months ago, let alone the entire package.

This lack of a populist touch is very much like what we saw in the administration Christie replaces here in New Jersey. From the proposing toll hikes to pay down state debt to mounting the ramparts for state unions, Jon Corzine never connected with the change that hard working middle-class families require. Based on his rhetoric so far, Chris Christie is not going to make the same mistake. But rhetoric will not be enough.

Governor Christie’s repeated refrain in his inaugural address was, “Today change has arrived.” Well, he’s got his work cut out for him. He has less than two months to unveil how he will close an $8 billion (or more) budget gap. That means there will be a lot of New Jerseyans are going to feel some pain.

Christie then has to navigate this budget through a Democratically-controlled legislature where he’s likely to meet outright hostility from the Assembly, if not the Senate as well. And he has to sell the pain to the voters who put him into office. (And this guy actually wanted the job!)

Change is coming to New Jersey one way or another. Governor Christie has the opportunity to take control of that change now or be swept away by it in four years time.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

What to Watch for in Today’s NJ Senate Vote

Today, the New Jersey State Senate is scheduled to vote on what could be its most volatile piece of legislation of the session. Obviously, I’m talking about S1036 – the bill to grant children of illegal immigrants in-state tuition rates at New Jersey’s public colleges and universities.

I bet you thought I was going to say same-sex marriage, weren’t you? Sure, that issue has been getting the lion’s share of media attention (and I’ll comment on that issue in more detail below). But in terms of a legislative vote’s potential impact in the 2011 elections, there is little question in my mind which of these issues could be more controversial in the long-term.

UPDATE: The Senate postponed the vote on S1036 to Monday 1/11. Possibly, the potential political fallout may have caught up to some legislators.

While the marriage bill debate has been hot, the fire is likely to fizzle for most voters if the bill were to pass. As I wrote last month, the majority of New Jerseyans do not have a strong opinion on this issue. Of course, that’s not to say that for a very vocal minority, this marriage issue will stay alive regardless of today’s outcome (again, more on that below).

For many more voters, though, an issue that is likely to stick in their crawl is granting any privileges to illegal immigrants. A Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll from last year bears this out. A majority of 51% considered illegal immigration to be a very serious problem in New Jersey and another 28% found the problem somewhat serious. Only 18% said it was either not too or not at all serious.

When asked whether illegal immigrants domiciled in New Jersey should be allowed to pay in-state tuition rates at public higher education institutions, only 20% said yes. When asked whether the children of those immigrants should be afforded that privilege, the affirmative vote only went up to 32%. Moreover, 22% of the public said that these children should not even be allowed to attend New Jersey’s state colleges, regardless of what they were willing to pay.

The level of public antipathy appears to be more intense for illegal immigration than it is for same-sex marriage. History suggests that attitudes towards immigrants ebb and flow with economic conditions, with public opinion growing more negative during austere times.

My own ancestors came to this country from Ireland and Italy around the turn of the prior century. I vividly remember my grandparents (the children of immigrants themselves) recounting how they were called WOPs (“without papers,” i.e. undocumented), particularly during the Great Depression. Today’s attitudes are really nothing new.

New Jersey tends to be more tolerant of cultural diversity and all that entails. [You can find other Monmouth/Gannett polls on Garden State immigration attitudes here and here.] This is probably more out of necessity than anything else, since we have the third-highest proportion of foreign born residents among all 50 states. One out of every five New Jerseyans was born in another country!

However, if the current economic conditions persist into the 2011 election cycle, we may see a vote on S1036 re-appear as a campaign issue in contested races (assuming the new legislative map that year gives us some competitive districts).

Same-Sex Marriage
Now, a few thoughts on the “less contentious” vote. Among the 39 sitting Senators, 21 were in the state legislature in 2006 and cast “Yea” votes for civil unions. If they repeated that vote on same-sex marriage, the debate would clearly be over. However, at least eight of them have publicly stated (or voted in committee) that they will not support same-sex marriage. And a handful have made no firm commitment either way.

I searched media reports from that time and could find only two comments from any of those 21 legislators. In October 2006, Tom Kean issued the following statement: “I still believe that marriage is and should be between one man and one woman and I would support an amendment to the state constitution reaffirming that definition.” Of course, he was in the throes of a U.S. Senate campaign then. He ended up voting for civil unions one month after losing that election.

On the flip side of the coin, then-Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck gave what appears to be fairly unequivocal support to same-sex unions during floor debate on December 14, 2006: “I think today is much more a matter of equal rights more than anything else. Committed, loving relationships deserve equal consideration by our laws. So today I rise in support of the foundation of our democracy, which indeed is equal consideration by all of our laws.” This was shortly before she launched her successful campaign to unseat Senator Ellen Karcher in 2007. Her rhetoric appears to have tempered somewhat since that time.

Keep an eye on all 21, though. I’ll be most interested in the rationale given by those who cast different votes on civil unions and same-sex marriage.

UPDATE: The bill failed by a vote of 14-20. Among the 21 senators who voted for civil unions in 2006, just 10 voted yes on gay marriage. Among the remainder, 8 voted no (Bateman, Beck, Girgenti, Tom Kean, Madden, Sacco, Turner, Van Drew), 2 abstained (Sarlo, Sweeney) and 1 was not present (Ciesla). Of these legislators, only Senator Girgenti made a public statement explaining his no vote.

I can understand why a person would be opposed to civil unions (and thus gay marriage). They believe that civil society has a vested interest in maintaining and recognizing the union of one man and one woman and that the union of two people of the same sex is deleterious to society.

On the other hand, I’m genuinely puzzled by the argument that gay and lesbian couples deserve all the same rights as male and female married couples, but they just can’t use that term to describe the state’s recognition of those rights. Based on testimony at last month’s committee hearing and other public comments, the root of that distinction is based on religion. In other words, the state has a vested interest in protecting a particular religious definition of the word “marriage,” although it does not have the same interest in maintaining the preservation of that religion’s view of the institution itself.

By the way, there is a very good reason for casting a yes vote for civil unions then and a no vote for gay marriage now. It’s just that I’ve yet to hear anyone use it. In October 2006, the New Jersey Supreme Court basically punted the issue to the legislature. The court ruled that same-sex couples deserved access to marital rights, but it directed the legislature to determine how to do it.

Even if you were opposed to civil unions, one reason to have voted for it would have been to avoid making matters worse by defeating the bill and throwing the matter back to the court, who would have likely declared that same-sex couples should have access to existing marriage laws. As I said, I haven’t heard anyone use this argument to defend a difference for their vote then and now, but it's the only one I can think of based purely on rationale.

Regardless of the outcome of this legislation, I hope, for the sake of the state, that this is an end to legislative action on it for a while. If it fails, there is no chance that the incoming governor would sign it anyway. If it passes and is signed into law, I hope that opponents won’t tie up the legislature with constitutional amendments to define marriage. Our near-bankrupt state has bigger fish to fry right now.