The Christie Campaign: Whitman ’93 or Dewey ’48 ?

I received a number of responses to my column last week. In that column, I asserted that in order to win the gubernatorial election, Chris Christie must offer a property tax reduction platform. One responder contended that if Christie followed my advice, he would lose the election in similar fashion to GOP gubernatorial candidate Ray Bateman in 1977.

In that campaign, Bateman propounded the Bateman-Simon plan to eliminate the New Jersey income tax, which had been enacted by the legislature and signed by Governor Brendan Byrne during 1976. The 1977 Bateman-Simon proposal, however, does not in any way resemble the two-principle property tax platform I advocated last week.

My contention is that if Chris Christie advocates a credible and coherent property tax platform, he will be elected as Governor on November 3, in similar fashion to Christie Whitman’s 1993 triumph over the then-incumbent Governor Jim Florio. If the current GOP Gubernatorial nominee fails to do so, he may lose, in almost the exact same manner that 1948 GOP Presidential nominee Tom Dewey lost his lead and ultimately the election to the then incumbent, President Harry S. Truman.

In order to understand how the Chris Christie political “brain trust” members have learned the wrong lesson from the 1977 Bateman defeat, one must review the events of that campaign.

Day after day during the 1977 campaign, Ray Bateman was pressured by the Democrats and the media as to what he would do differently from Byrne on fiscal matters. Instead of a tax reduction plan, Bateman put forward a proposal to 1) allow the income tax to expire on June 30,1978 and 2) compensate for any budget shortfall by increasing the state sales tax by one percent.

This was not tax reduction – this was tax shifting. Bateman also was hurt by bad timing – he made this proposal at the same time that the state Treasury Department was sending out the first rebate checks under the then new property tax relief program. The checks were signed by Governor Brendan Byrne and accompanied by a letter of explanation from him.

Naturally, the combination of the Bateman-Simon plan and the Byrne rebate checks cost the 1977 GOP gubernatorial nominee the election. It was a shame, too, because Ray Bateman was as well qualified a gubernatorial candidate as New Jersey has seen during the past century.

The property tax platform I proposed in my previous column consists of two principles: 1) Control property tax increases by limiting the growth of local municipal and school district budgets; and 2) Limit the extent of the power of the courts to divert school aid from suburban to urban school districts. Unlike the Bateman-Simon plan, no tax shifting results from this platform.

The problem with the people in the Christie political “brain trust” is that they believe that based on the Bateman’77 experience, a Republican gubernatorial candidate should never make any proposals whatsoever on fiscal issues, local or state, if he or she is ahead in the race. This is indeed the wrong lesson from that campaign.

The real lesson to be learned from the 1977 election is that any fiscal proposal made by a Republican gubernatorial non-incumbent nominee must 1) be simple, clear, and readily comprehensible; and 2) not contain any tax-shifting elements. Nobody understood this lesson better than Christie Whitman, and she demonstrated her political sagacity in this regard vividly in the 1993 campaign.

I smile as I write this, because the Christie political “brain trust” consists mostly of individuals who are also members of what I call the “New Jersey Republican Conventional Wisdom Club”. In 1993, the New Jersey Republican Conventional Wisdom Club members panned Whitman’s proposed 30% income tax cut. In unison, they proclaimed that the Whitman proposal would doom her in the November election.

The Whitman tax cut proposal came at a time when she was being bombarded by Florio campaign commercials claiming she was “out to lunch”. The media almost unanimously subsequently excoriated her for her 30% reduction plan.

Christie Whitman stayed on message with her tax cut proposal, however, and it won her the election. Her victory proved that the wisdom of the New Jersey Republican Conventional Wisdom Club isn’t very wise.

There are strong similarities between the 1993 gubernatorial race and the 2009 contest. To be sure, Jim Florio was ahead in the 1993 election at the time that Christie Whitman made her tax cut proposal, while the present incumbent Governor, Jon Corzine is behind. Nevertheless, the Florio favorable/unfavorable job approval numbers of 1993 strongly resemble the Corzine favorable/unfavorable job approval numbers of 2009.

As in 1993, Independent voters will decide this year’s gubernatorial contest. Corzine’s negative commercials, as scurrilous as they are, have been a major factor in his rapidly regaining his Democrat base. Independents hold the key to Drumthwacket.

In 1993, registered Independents voted for Christie Whitman, based on her position on the income tax, the issue of most importance to Independents in that election. This year, as shown by the Monmouth/Gannett poll, among both likely and registered voters, property tax outpolls all other issues as a matter of concern by a margin of more than two to one. Yet unlike Whitman in 1993, aside from advocating keeping the rebate in place, Chris Christie has basically been silent on this year’s issue of most concern to Independent voters.

If the Christie political brain trust members think they can maintain his current lead among Independent voters by being non-responsive on property taxes, they are taking a major risk. For historical guidance, they can study how Tom Dewey lost a huge lead in the 1948 Presidential race to the ultimate victor, the then incumbent President Harry S. Truman.

Like Chris Christie, Tom Dewey made his reputation as an outstanding prosecutor. To be sure, however, one can readily note the differences between the two men. One of my favorite personalities in 20th Century America, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, ridiculed Dewey by saying he resembled "the little man on the wedding cake". To put it mildly, nobody will ever label Chris Christie as a “little man”. Also, unlike the rather antiseptic Dewey, Chris is both engaging and personable.

Furthermore, Jon Corzine hardly resembles Harry Truman in personality. Like the battling Man from Independence in 1948, however, he is attempting to make the public forget about the negatives on his record by attacking the Republican Party and his opponent.

In 1948, Dewey responded to Truman’s attacks in platitudes, without offering specifics on the most significant issues. The following editorial in the Louisville Courier Journal on November 18, 1948 provided a concise post-mortem on the Dewey campaign:

“No presidential candidate in the future will be so inept that four of his major speeches can be boiled down to these historic four sentences: Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have freedom without liberty. Our future lies ahead.”

In terms of the property tax issue, the most significant issue of this year’s gubernatorial campaign, Christie’09 bears an eerie resemblance to Dewey ’48.

In the face of accelerating forthcoming negative attacks from Corzine, Chris Christie will never hold his present plurality among Independents unless he can change the subject to property tax, an issue on which Independents have judged Jon Corzine to be a failure. There is also a risk that Independents discontented with Corzine on property taxes will vote for Chris Daggett if Christie remains silent on this issue.

Christie will avoid the fate of Tom Dewey in 1948 if he follows the playbook of Christie Whitman and makes the property tax issue the centerpiece of his campaign, as Whitman did with her 30% income tax cut proposal in 1993. Chris Christie can learn a lot from Christie Whitman. Let me put it more succinctly – Christie can learn a lot from Christie.

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and seven federally recognized Indian nations. The Christie Campaign:  Whitman ’93 or Dewey ’48 ?