U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg looked east Friday, high above the industrial wasteland crammed into the swamp and river beds, and the lights on the commuter traffic on the Turnpike in the distance, and the packed trains just below boring into Newark Penn Station.
"When I first became a senator I knew I wanted my office to be here in Newark, in the center of things," said Lautenberg, who turned 84 this past week while looking at a favorable job rating of 43% in the latest Monmouth University/Gannett poll.
It’s in an election year for New Jersey’s senior senator, which is why after voting on the floor earlier in the day he returned to New Jersey to make some fund-raising calls in anticipation of his general election showdown with Republicans.
The Democratic incumbent leads two Republican primary candidates: 38%-24% against millionaire developer Anne Evans Estabrook, and 40%-25% against State Sen. Joseph Pennacchio. The Monmouth poll did not include Ramapo College Professor Murray Sabrin, who entered the race after the survey was taken.
In another sign that the campaigns are revving up, the National Republican Senatorial Committee last week unveiled an attack ad against him, which notes that New Jersey rates last in return on federal taxes. Featuring a 1982 clip of a bushier side-burned Lautenberg vowing to get a better rate of return than 45th in the state on tax dollars, the ad states, "Twenty-six years after his promise… New Jersey isn’t 45th anymore, it’s dead last."
Lautenberg dismisses the charge as "politics," and bluntly counters that the Republican candidates must answer for the dismal record of their party and the presence of a man in the White House whom he acknowledges has been "painful" to behold.
"We have failed to make necessary investments, and we are falling behind in health standards and longevity standards," said Lautenberg. "This administration has disregarded our domestic needs."
At GOP venues around the state, Estabrook and Pennacchio mutually side-step the issue of President George W. Bush and a mismanaged war with an estimated $2.4 trillion price tag, by invoking both the troops, and the late Ronald Reagan as the complete conservative leadership package. Their attempt at symbolic resonance in the memory of Reagan is understandable, said Lautenberg.
"America has lost its leadership over the last few years, and there are no badges of honor due for anyone except our brave troops in Iraq," Lautenberg told PolitickerNJ.com in an interview on Friday. "We may have seen the worst of the presidents."
As for Reagan, "He was a good communicator," said Lautenberg. "He brought an image of comfort and leadership." But reaching back to those years cannot dispel the Bush years, he maintained.
"We’re in a war that’s costing us $3 billion a week – with supplementals on top of that," said Lautenberg. "The war has been directed by Republicans, by a vice-president who has taken the word ‘mismanagement’ to a new level."
Estabrook on the campaign trail casts the issue in terms of politicians who won’t let the generals in Iraq do their jobs. At a local party function in Clark Township on Thursday, Estabrook said the troop surge in Iraq is working, and criticized lawmakers’ efforts as meddlesome.
"Announcing a specific departure date on a billboard in Bagdad is irresponsible and dangerous," said the Republican candidate.
Lautenberg said he doesn’t want to be an armchair general on the war, but says "there should be a definite withdrawal date."
"We can’t just walk away, and the political situation has to be ironed out," said Lautenberg. "We’ve lost our coalition. With the right leadership we could make a serious appeal to other countries about the price they pay for failure in Iraq, but we cannot continue with a war that has demoralized our country."
He mentions his own experience as a WWII soldier in the Army signal corps as a way of connecting with the troops he says have been battered by a misfit administration.
"The surge has had only a temporary effect," said the senator, deriding Bush-Cheney as "chicken hawks" whose fundamental lack of understanding has played havoc with the lives of military families whose people have been deployed multiple times to Iraq.
In Estabrook’s stump speech, she plugs the fact that she has no experience in public office. "I am a businesswoman," she says. "Like any businessperson, I am allergic to government regulation and red tape."
On the stump in Riverton on Monday night, she said, "It’s time for a change. Together, let’s change. Let’s change and have our government work for us, for a change."
To the charge that he is an out-of-touch Beltway denizen, Lautenberg said, "I am a businessman. I founded a business (Automatic Data Processing) that employs 46,000 people." But for the Republicans to make an argument for Bush’s war while railing against federal spending, even as the infrastructure needs of the country are out-of-date, makes no sense, said the senator.
"Look at that bridge down there," said Lautenberg, indicating a hulking, faded gray structure spanning the Passaic River. "That’s exactly the kind of thing we need to be looking at replacing as we seek to move people out of their cars and into mass transit."
He talked about his senate fact-finding mission trip to Greenland last year to observe the ice melts and to confirm the threat of global warming.
"We need change, yes," said Lautenberg. "Change absolutely, in the way we think about our highways and skyways and the technology we apply to improve the lives of our citizens."