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.