This post originally appeared as a guest column for In The Lobby.
By all accounts, Tuesday was a good day for Republicans, both in New Jersey and nationally. In New Jersey, Chris Christie took the oath of office, marking the GOP’s first position of power in Trenton since John Bennett’s tenure as Senate Co-President ended with his defeat in 2003.
In Massachusetts, Scott Brown scored an upset win in the battle for Ted Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat, thus breaking the Democrat’s filibuster-proof majority. Many observers will view this win, as well as GOP victories in the Virginia and New Jersey governorships last November, as a repudiation of President Obama’s first year in office. The poll data don’t support such an overgeneralization, but still it’s difficult to ignore that the GOP is a party on the rise.
Republican partisans I have spoken with appear to be positively giddy with thoughts of huge gains in state and Congressional offices this coming November. That may indeed happen. But if it does, there are some cautionary notes for New Jersey’s Republican governor that shouldn’t be ignored.
The elections in Massachusetts, Virginia, and New Jersey had a few things in common. In each, the Democratic candidate, to some degree or another, was perceived as “out of touch” with the middle class. With automaker CEOs flying private jets to Washington to cry poverty and bank executives claiming they are doing “God’s work,” the American people are more than a tad upset with the elite class and all who coddle them.
In this environment, being seen as a working class hero is a decided plus. Scott Brown portrayed himself as a truck driving, blue collar guy. And here in the Garden State, there is no question that Chris Christie is a Jersey boy through and through. But that does not necessarily mean that all “home boy” benefits naturally accrue to the Republicans. It depends on the candidate, not the party label.
The PPP Poll issued Sunday, which accurately predicted a 5 point win for Brown, found that Massachusetts voters actually held a dimmer view of Congressional Republicans (22% favorable to 63% unfavorable) than they did of the Democrats (30% favorable to 55% unfavorable), even while voting to send a Republican to the Senate for the first time since 1978.
Another common thread in these recent elections is that voters are still looking for change. The Christie campaign rode that mantra to victory in Jersey, as did Scott Brown in the Bay State. But remember, voters have been in the mood for change for nearly four years.
They voted for Democrats in 2006 and 2008, and it looks like the tide is turning in the Republicans’ favor this year. But don’t be fooled into thinking this represents an ideological shift in the electorate that will propel the GOP to a lengthy return to power. Voters keep choosing change because they are getting a little punchy. Since they haven’t seen tangible results from the current crop of elected leaders, they will keep voting for change until they get it. If the current dynamic holds, we could potentially see frequent partisan switches in legislative and executive leadership over the next few election cycles.
Therein lies a lesson for New Jersey’s new chief executive. A change in style and rhetoric is not enough. You have to deliver results. At Tuesday night’s inaugural bash in Newark, Governor Christie’s friend, state Senator Joe Kyrillos exulted, “They said it couldn’t be done. They said that in New Jersey we couldn’t elect a tax-cutting, pro-growth, job-creating governor.”
Well, the jury is still out on that claim. To his credit, Governor Christie acknowledges that when New Jerseyans come up to him, the most frequent message is, “Now, do what you said you would do.” That is not a friendly piece of advice. It is a job requirement. Christie must remember that it was middle-class independent voters who put him into power.
It’s a lesson that the folks in the White House has yet to learn. Look at the drop in Barack Obama’s approval ratings over the first year of his term. GOPers say this is because the American people disagree with his domestic policy agenda. I, on the other hand, view that declining support as the result of a middle-America who feel that the President does not “have their backs.” For example, the economic stimulus package is seen as only benefitting the people who got us into this mess. The re-appointment of Ben Bernanke to head the Federal Reserve Board only underlines that point.
Furthermore, the president lost the health care reform debate not because of any particular policy item – the polls clearly show that Americans have little understanding about what is included in the proposal. Obama’s major mistake was in trying to sell the so-called the societal benefit of insuring the poor. If he had focused his message on keeping big insurance company premiums under control and not arbitrarily denying coverage to hard-working middle class Americans, he probably could have won support for the controversial “public option” months ago, let alone the entire package.
This lack of a populist touch is very much like what we saw in the administration Christie replaces here in New Jersey. From the proposing toll hikes to pay down state debt to mounting the ramparts for state unions, Jon Corzine never connected with the change that hard working middle-class families require. Based on his rhetoric so far, Chris Christie is not going to make the same mistake. But rhetoric will not be enough.
Governor Christie’s repeated refrain in his inaugural address was, “Today change has arrived.” Well, he’s got his work cut out for him. He has less than two months to unveil how he will close an $8 billion (or more) budget gap. That means there will be a lot of New Jerseyans are going to feel some pain.
Christie then has to navigate this budget through a Democratically-controlled legislature where he’s likely to meet outright hostility from the Assembly, if not the Senate as well. And he has to sell the pain to the voters who put him into office. (And this guy actually wanted the job!)
Change is coming to New Jersey one way or another. Governor Christie has the opportunity to take control of that change now or be swept away by it in four years time.