On Tuesday, January 19, 2010, Chris Christie will be inaugurated as New Jersey’s Governor. That evening, it is highly likely that Scott Brown will be elected as U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. While these two events are coincidental in timing, they are not unrelated.
Chris Christie was elected as Governor this past November as a result of an anti-incumbent tide against Jon Corzine. If Scott Brown is elected this Tuesday night, it will be due to an anti-incumbent tide against Barack Obama. The question regarding New Jersey’s new Governor is whether six months from now his popularity ratings will fall victim to the same anti-incumbent tide.
Barack Obama ran on a message of Hope and Change. Chris Christie ran on a message of Hope and Change, but unlike Obama, he did not promise the millennium. This will turn out to be a significant advantage for the new Governor.
The American people by and large now feel that the Hope preached by Obama is indeed a mirage. The economy has not improved since he took office on January 20, 2009. Middle class and working class Americans view his health care initiative as something that threatens both their wallets and the quality of their health care for no good purpose. As doubts grow about the nature and extent of global warming, they fail to understand what purpose is served by the President’s cap-and-trade energy package. Even in supposedly blue state New Jersey, Obama’s poll number approval ratings have fallen below fifty percent.
Chris Christie reminded the voters that due to high state income taxes and local property taxes and excessive regulation, New Jersey has become a state inhospitable to businesses and unaffordable to its residents. He promised change, but reminded voters that the road to recovery would not be easy.
One may make the following historical analogy: In 1940, Winston Churchill told the people of Great Britain during the fall of France, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”. In 2010, Christie’s initial message can be summarized as “I have nothing to offer but draconian budget cuts. And if you want to keep reductions in state municipal and school aid from resulting in local property tax hikes, it is up to your local municipal and school district officials to reduce the expenses in their budgets.”
Christie can also paraphrase the message of Ronald Reagan that “there is no way to reduce your son’s profligate spending without cutting his allowance.” Similarly, only reductions in state aid will cause municipalities and school districts to make long overdue reforms and cost reductions.
In short, the result of the first Christie budget will be a test of wills between the new Governor and municipal and school district officials throughout the state. These local officials will hope that threat of property tax hikes and major reductions in education and municipal services will cause Christie to raise state taxes in order to close the $9 billion deficit and maintain state aid to municipalities and school districts at existing levels.
Will Chris Christie succeed in making the focus on the property tax issue the reduction of local costs, rather than the amount of state aid? His success in this regard will determine how his administration will be judged, not just by the voters in 2013 but by historians in general. The ability of the Christie administration to communicate this message will depend on the political skills of his top officials.
Fortunately, in this regard, Christie is well served by the political skills of his two top officials with regard to the state budget, Chief of Staff Rich Bagger and State Treasurer-designate Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff, as well as his Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy and Planning Wayne Hasenbalg. Unlike the various Chiefs of Staffs, State Treasurers, and policy advisors in the Corzine administration, Bagger and Eristoff have experience as elected officials to go with their other public service positions reflected in their outstanding resumes. Similarly, Hasenbalg has a most impressive record of experience in both the governmental and political arenas.
A word about Eristoff which I know due to personal experience: He is a member of a family with a tradition of solid and unblemished public service. His father, Connie was a predecessor of mine in the position of Region 2 EPA Regional Administrator, having served in the administration of Bush 41. He was a “wise man” whom I consulted on major issues and critical decisions.
The problem that Governor Christie, Bagger, Eristoff, and Hasenbalg will face, however, is that notwithstanding Christie’s forbearance from excessive promises, the public will still expect immediate results from him. That is unfair, but such is the reality of an angry electorate. The electorate wants to have its cake and eat it, too – no new taxes, but no reduction in state and local services.
Christie can win the test of wills with local officials and the various public employee and teachers’ unions, most notably the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) if he holds firm and now conveys a real message of Hope: that after a painful period, the state’s budget expenditure can be reduced, that further reductions in taxes can be implemented, and that a more business friendly climate in the state will be the result.
He should reject the State House conventional wisdom that budgetary reduction and reform is impossible. In this regard, the experience of Christie Whitman is instructive. Whitman was a governor who rejected the State House conventional wisdom that her 30% income tax cut was impossible. She kept her tax cut promise, however, and reduced the rate of growth of the state budget to significantly low levels. Property tax increases remained low, and the state economy boomed. Whitman was the most underrated governor of the past fifty years.
In 2008, the anti-incumbent sentiment against President George W.Bush made inevitable the election to the Presidency of a Democrat. In retrospect, given this inevitability, America would have been much better served by the election of Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama.
Hillary Clinton had compiled a major record of accomplishment in the United States Senate and had forged good relationships with key figures on both sides of the political divide. By contrast, Obama’s U.S. Senate record was undistinguished at best. His major focus since his Senate election in 2004 was on running for the Presidency.
Clinton was ready to govern. Obama was not. In 2010, Chris Christie is ready to govern. This is why in large measure he can succeed where Obama is failing: to deliver real Hope and Change, and not a mirage.
Good luck, Governor.
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.