Two big city New Jersey mayors sat at a bar in Washington, D.C. on the annual Chamber of Commerce trip a few years ago and considered the question thrown their way by PolitickerNJ.
What’s the most important word in politics? “Trust,” was the gurgled response from one of them. Slung over his drink, he adamantly defended his choice. Without trust, he said, there is nothing, speaking specifically to those expectations of the political relations and alliances of the public officeholder. Failing the creation of a comfort level with his allies and a confidence in the ability of his team and extended contacts to perform, a mayor is paralyzed, he argued.
But what exists in New Jersey right now is far worse, and far more corrosive than the breakdown of an inner political circle.
What exists is the breakdown of public trust in government.
Consider where we are right now in the already always impaired world of New Jersey politics: a United States Senator from New Jersey is under indictment for corruption charges and significant allies in the Christie administration will likely be indicted this week, according to sources.
It’s like a comic disaster picture where the main characters are suspended between statewide indictments. In this picture, there’s a noir twist to the action in the sense that, of course, no one can be trusted.
Take Menendez. There’s the criminal charge put forward by the government, and then there’s simply the possibility that the senator suffered some ethical lapses, along with everyone – or nearly everyone – else who serves in Congress and must depend on raising money to survive in this business.
At worst, if you believe the feds, it’s criminal corruption. At best, it’s either ethical misjudgment by the senator or – and this could be most catastrophic if you accept the argument by Menendez’s allies that his indictment is political and the handicraft of vengeance and selective federal prosecution – a breakdown utterly in the execution of justice.
It all adds up to a reinforcing lack of trust.
Then there’s Christie running around New Hampshire, painstakingly following a political script written back when he was a first term governor and still apparently believing in the bounce he figured he deserved coming off his 2013 victory over no-hoper Barbara Buono. The trust factor marred by Bridgegate, a continuing bad economy, and fatigue over someone who speaks more about himself than spends time servicing the needs and sufferings of his home state, 69% of New Jerseyans don’t think Christie would be a good president, according to last week’s Rutgers University Poll.
He gallops forward anyway, his own individual quest for high office more pressing than a state in crisis, the end result of a career built on Youtube hits and the natural upwardly mobile expression of one who can easily rationalize away a run as the best logical escape route from a gnarly backwater like New Jersey. “He ain’t running,” a source told PolitickerNJ the other day, glum-faced, solemn. “He’s just trying to make it look the presidency is still in play while the U.S. Attorney’s Office resolves the Bridgegate indictments.”
Hillary Clinton’s rollout too did little or nothing to suspend a sense of public disconnect from a fundamental civic understanding that politics serves us.
The country, in fact, looks like an inflated version of New Jersey, with a stagnating collective sense of people in high office serving themselves and their own political ambitions and detached from the best populist impulses imbedded in our form of government.
Where’s Eisenhower when you need him?
It’s one thing to talk to politicians and hear the boomeranging self-protective echo chamber fast filling with soft, measured responses to indictment-land. It’s quite another to talk to everyday people who catch pieces of headlines between two and three jobs; people who are overworked and overtired. Most people you talk to express no outrage or even real interest in these cases. Most of them reached the conclusion long ago that government is corrupt, that it does not serve them, that’s a game for public legal and insurance contracts and dual jobs, and, in fact, actively works against them like a powerful force as all-encompassing and intrusive as the Patriot Act, or as needling and annoying as the cop who stops them and slaps them with a $100 ticket as they slightly zigzag home from work exhausted after back to back shifts.
We are two years and change away from the next gubernatorial election. Perhaps we’ve reached a point where this version of our public discourse simply stands in the way of a fair contest that produces – agree or disagree with the leader – a sense of trust. But to the degree that someone can break through an abiding level of disillusion, that person will have attained what today appears to be almost unthinkable, namely a reanimation and fulfillment of that most basic and fundamental public contract called trust.