Wednesday, February 17, 2010

He Said, He Said. So What?

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

Governor Chris Christie has wasted no time making his mark on Trenton. He has already used his veto power to make examples of fiscal waste. And last week, he called a special session of the legislature to declare a state of fiscal emergency.

In all honesty, the governor’s address to the legislature was pure political theater. He made no proposed cut that required legislative approval (although many Democratic legislators may disagree). Chris Christie knows that it is important to appear that he is firmly grasping the reins of an out-of-control state government. This is a guy who understands the power of symbolic acts.

During his speech, Christie likened the anticipated reaction of his critics to the cries of “unfair” he hears from his nine year old son, Patrick, who was sitting in the Assembly chamber. It is not for this observer to determine whether his proposed cuts and other actions to date are fair or not. Although I will say that embarrassing his son in public was definitely not cool. (We Patricks have to stick together.)

Those cries of “unfair” have already come from one unexpected quarter. The man Christie defeated. There has been a concerted effort by Jon Corzine’s camp to lay claim to the budget cuts proposed by Christie and to dispute the new governor’s deficit calculations.

I have no idea who is right in this debate, but it doesn’t really matter. As Winston Churchill said, “History is written by the victors.”

I understand that the former governor feels he hasn’t been given full credit for his administration’s achievements. That’s probably true, although the fault lies as much in his own inability to communicate those achievements as anything else. He was never a good student of how public opinion operates – and how important it can be to a politician’s success.

That is not to say that Chris Christie can’t overplay his hand on this. Just look at President Obama. While more Americans still blame the Bush administration for today’s economic woes, it’s Obama who now bears responsibility for the solutions (or lack thereof, depending on your point of view).

For Corzine’s part, his unwillingness to go gracefully threatens to put him in a class with former Vice President Dick Cheney. If Jon Corzine is at all concerned with his legacy, I don’t think he wants to go there.

The debate is not whether Christie is using somebody else’s ideas. If he executes them, he gets the credit. If Corzine’s tenure showed us anything, it’s that the need to execute is paramount.

This brings us back to the challenges faced by New Jersey’s current governor. Chris Christie was elected with less than half the vote. During the fall campaign, voters with an unfavorable opinion of the candidate were nearly as numerous as those with a favorable view (although that ratio has improved since his election). Importantly, most voters had little idea exactly what he was going to do as governor and they still don’t.

Make no mistake, though. Christie still has the upper hand. Why? A majority of New Jerseyans think the state has been on the wrong track for years. Trust in government at all levels is at a historic low. And the vast majority of New Jerseyans believe that their state government is fundamentally broken and requires a major overhaul.

In this environment, Christie gets the benefit of the doubt by default, regardless of what his predecessor may claim. There is no question that his proposals will bring about pain; pain that will eventually cause a public outcry. But his first step must be a clear demonstration that he is in charge of the process – that he is willing to take on the multi-tentacled octopus of state government and not let go until he’s got it under control.

To that end, last Thursday’s address put the legislature on notice. Chris Christie will be looking over their shoulder for the next four years. It is telling that Democratic legislators reacted to his speech by voicing their irritation at being “left out” of the process as much as they criticized the substance of the governor’s cuts. Mounting a “process” argument is never a good tactic, especially when your job approval rating dwells in the mid-20s.

As the Christie administration approaches the one-month mark, the governor is making all the right moves – from a public opinion standpoint. Will this era of good feeling last? Probably not. The cuts are severe, and there will be an even more brutal round of spending cuts when next year’s budget plan is unveiled.

Chris Christie understands that the window of opportunity for winning over public opinion is short. He has to let the public know that the pain he is proposing now will lead to prosperity in the near future. And he has to do that by demonstrating, in a very public way, that he will be overseeing every step of the process.

Thursday’s speech was one step in the strategy to solidify his reputation in that area and build up a reservoir of good will. The cuts have not yet hit home. When they do, Christie will need to hang on to every bit of public support he is currently accruing. The hue and cry is coming.

Will Christie provoke the ire of towns and school districts who claim that his cuts will lead to higher property taxes? Absolutely, and they may even win the public debate on that point.

Will the Democratically-controlled legislature try to stymie his efforts? They certainly will, and in some cases they will do so with good cause (although it may be difficult to justify that to the public).

Will Christie take a hands-off approach like his predecessor and just assume that the wheels of government will turn in the direction he wants them to go? In the immortal words of Jerry Seinfeld, “Not bloody likely!”

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