If you could boil down the public’s lament about Washington, it might be: “What happened to the adults?”
Not adults of the Clark Clifford variety, the Washington fixtures who alternate between serving administrations and commenting on them sagely for PBS. But political leaders who make tough choices, take on problems directly, and combine principle with pragmatism in a manner consistent with true statesmanship.
President Obama promised to be this kind of leader. He has instead proven — with a few exceptions — to be the servant of a limited political faction. He has exacerbated the nation’s fiscal crisis without dealing effectively with its economic crisis, and has piled on far-reaching legislation of dubious merit. His supporters still lament that Washington is “broken.”
The sweep of Obama’s ambition has necessarily forced congressional Republicans into a perpetual posture of “no,” but they are reluctant to outline their own agenda of “yes.” Out across the United States, a populist movement of great moment and promise wants to pull the country back to its constitutional moorings. Its favored candidates, though, are often shaky vessels, the likes of Rand Paul in Kentucky and Sharron Angle in Nevada, who are always one gaffe away from self-immolation.
For adults, look to the statehouses. Look in particular to New Jersey and Indiana, where Govs. Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels are forging a limited-government Republicanism that connects with people and solves problems. They are models of how to take inchoate dissatisfaction with the status quo, launder it through political talent, and apply it in a practical way to governance.
Christie has just concluded a six-month whirlwind through Trenton that should be studied by political scientists for years to come. In tackling a fiscal crisis in a state groaning under an $11 billion deficit, he did his fellow New Jerseyans the favor of being as forthright as a punch in the mouth. And it worked.
Christie traveled the state making the case for budgetary retrenchment, and he frontally took on the state’s most powerful interest, the teachers’ union. He rallied the public and split the Democrats, in a bravura performance in the lost art of persuasion. At the national level, George W. Bush thought repeating the same stalwart lines over and over again counted as making an argument, and Barack Obama has simply muscled through his agenda on inflated Democratic majorities. Christie actually connected.
He matched unyielding principle (determined to balance the budget without raising taxes, he vetoed a millionaires’ tax within minutes of its passage) with a willingness to take half a loaf (he wanted a constitutional amendment to limit property taxes to 2.5 percent, but settled with Democrats for an imperfect statutory limit). He’ll need an Act II to get deeper, institutional reforms, but New Jersey is now separating itself from those other notorious wastrels, California and Illinois.