NEW JERSEY POLICY PERSPECTIVE
The nation has spoken. No change. President Obama has extended his lease on the White House. The Senate remains in Democratic hands, while the House welcomes back Congressman Ryan to the majority caucus.
The change for New Jersey, however, is huge. Or, more accurately, might be huge and should be huge. Gov. Christie is at a crossroads: he can romance the national Republican Party or concentrate on a badly battered New Jersey. The conflicts before yesterday were largely symbolic. Now they’re real, with large consequences.
Sandy showed the Governor’s pragmatic bent. Instead of continuing the Romney message about the failed Obama presidency, Gov. Christie celebrated the president’s immediate and strong support for accelerating the state’s recovery. Anonymous Romney insiders fumed, as did Rupert Murdoch, but the Governor stood his ground with the sensible observation that his early support of Gov. Romney’s presidential bid did not preclude his honest assessment of President Obama’s help in dealing with Sandy’s devastation.
Here’s the crossroads. For most of his first term, Gov. Christie has appeared to focus on the agenda of the Tea Party Republicans: cut taxes, shrink government, attack teacher and public employee unions, overturn Roe v. Wade, launch vouchers for religious schools, and support the Ryan Budget. He also appeared to enjoy the role of Chief Cheerleader for the Romney campaign, traveling frequently to campaign for gubernatorial, Senate and even House candidates in faraway places.
Now, choices. Assume for the moment that Gov. Christie would like to become President Christie. Pretty quickly, he alone must make some tricky decisions:
* Should he run for re-election or seek a well-financed sinecure at, say, Fox News where he can regularly preach to the base of the Republican Party?
* If he runs, should he promise to serve a full four years or begin his presidential campaign by breaking what will be characterized as a “solemn” promise?
* Should he become the first Republican governor to accept Medicaid expansion so that hundreds of thousands of poor New Jerseyans can finally enjoy effective health care? (For more on that, see Ray Castro’s blog on this issue.)
* Similarly, should New Jersey become the first state with a Republican governor to create its own health insurance exchange to help millions of New Jerseyans find the best-tailored and most affordable health insurance policy?
* And after a full year of putting tax cuts at the top of his state agenda, should he acknowledge the financial battering the state has taken and put the priorities on restoring the state’s infrastructure, its Shore, and investing in higher education?
This is no complete list, but it’s a fair start on the differences between energizing Tea Partiers in Oklahoma and concentrating on New Jersey’s mounting problems.
Sandy put Gov. Christie at the top of his game. By early 2013, when potential Democratic opponents should be stirring, those with the most to lose – like Mayor Cory Booker – are now more likely to respond with “no thanks.” The polls will show the Governor’s approval ratings to be gravity-defying. When potential opponents must decide, it will look like a suicide mission.
That brings us to the financial minefield facing whoever takes the governor’s oath in January 2014. The likelihood is now strong that the 2013 fiscal year will fall short of its super-optimistic revenue projections, which will only make the 2014 budget (offered in the campaign year) tougher to patch together. That is no way to start a new term. Such problems are not quickly solved. If the national economy remains sluggish, the next four years could be one fiscal migraine headache after another with no clear victory in sight.
Welcome to the New Normal, governor.
Gordon MacInnes is president of NJPP and also a member of the Rutgers Board of Governors. The views expressed above do not represent those of the Board or administration of Rutgers University.