New Jersey’s Budget Battle: Insight Into Phil Murphy’s Likely Strategy

Phil Murphy Handles New Jersey's State Budget Battle
Governor Phil Murphy is not only a student of history, but he has modeled his administration using President John F. Kennedy’s playbook. DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images

Notwithstanding the posturing by some New Jersey Democrats, the likelihood of a government shutdown during the Governor Phil Murphy administration is no greater than the likelihood of any national disaster that President John F. Kennedy had the ability to avert during his administration.

Governor Phil Murphy is not only a student of history, but he has modeled his administration using President Kennedy’s playbook. Like Kennedy, Murphy is a skilled negotiator and the drama that has been unfolding in Trenton is likely part of his intended strategy given NJ Senate President Steve Sweeney’s opposition to the governor’s vision for the state.

When Kennedy took office, the United States’ Cold War with the Soviet Union was at a crucial point, with a real threat of nuclear war on the horizon. In his inaugural address, Kennedy shared his thoughts on negotiation.

“So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof,” he said. “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

He added: “Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.”

New Jersey’s current budget battle clearly does not rise to the level of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but JFK’s negotiation tactics can apply to any issue. For those who have realized by now that Murphy’s knowledge of history is well above average for any American other than a college history professor, here’s some insight into what he is probably thinking and doing:

Analyze the Options

While Kennedy’s military advisers and many others in his inner circle pushed for an aggressive approach, Kennedy stayed focused, took his time and analyzed his options. He viewed bombing the missiles in Cuba as an option of last resort.

If seeking to resolve the current budget, Kennedy would likely view a government shutdown not as a negotiating tool, but as the least favorable option. Accordingly, he would pursue every avenue possible before the budget deadline.

Consult Experts With Divergent Views

Kennedy made sure not to surround himself with “yes” men who would only tell him what he wanted to hear. Among his closest advisors, there were both hawks, diplomats and those who fell in between. During the course of the negotiations, JFK listened to opinions from all sides, yet refused to be backed into a corner. In the end, his ability to make strategic and rational decisions averted the crisis.

In reaching a budget deal, Kennedy would likely encourage New Jersey politicians to analyze the numbers and other available data, rather than letting emotions and political pressure dictate the course of the negotiations.

Focus on Common Ground

Even at the height of the crisis, both JFK and Nikita Khrushchev recognized that mutually-assured destruction would not benefit either country. JFK focused on issues that could bring the two countries together rather than divide them, namely that neither country wanted nuclear missiles pointed at their country.

He would likely advise New Jersey Democrats to take the same approach, highlighting that there is more that unites them than divides.

Rely on Backchannels

Kennedy used backchannels to communicate with Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His brother, Robert Kennedy, was in regular and secret contact with the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin. The relationship helped build trust among the two sides and allowed Kennedy to gauge the Russian’s receptiveness to his proposals in a more informal setting.

While Kennedy would support New Jersey Democrats using public statements and the press to inform the public about the budget process, he would also advise that the real negotiation should take place behind closed doors, using trusted political allies to help reach a consensus.

Let the Other Side Walk Away With a Victory

JFK recognized that a successful negotiation had to result in a win-win.

As he famously said in 1961, “You cannot negotiate with people who say what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable.”

After the Soviet Union agreed to remove its missiles in Cuba, JFK publicly pledged that the United States would never invade that country without direct provocation. In doing so, he allowed the Russians to save face and claim a victory of their own.

Likewise, New Jersey Democrats need to recognize that the budget negotiation process is not an all-or-nothing situation. Small concessions on each side can go a long way to reaching a resolution.

The good thing for Governor Phil Murphy is that nuclear holocaust is not a consequence of failure.  But for Murphy, as it was for JFK, failure is not an option.

Donald Scarinci is a managing partner at Scarinci Hollenbeck—read his full bio here.

New Jersey’s Budget Battle: Insight Into Phil Murphy’s Likely Strategy