I asked on Twitter whether it was even news anymore when a poll shows Republican Chris Christie ahead of Democrat incumbent Jon Corzine, this time ahead 48 percent to 41 percent. The sense was yes, so there you are.
Actually, there is a point to be made here. At this point, the smart money is on Christie; Corzine’s favorable/unfavorable and job-approval numbers have been abysmal all year long. But here are Christie’s percentages in polls in July: 48, 53, 53, 45, 53, 50, 42, 50. Now look at Christie’s percentages in polls in September: 41, 46, 47, 44, 37, 48.
Corzine’s percentages were in the high 30s/low 40s both months, so it’s not like we’re witnessing an amazing comeback. But the Republican has lost some ground, and while it’s good to see a campaign not panicking, it might not hurt to see a bit more intensity from the Christie campaign.
As a onetime resident of New Jersey who still has family and friends there, I want a good candidate to not merely win a majority, but win a mandate for reform. While I concur with the Christie slogan that voters can’t change Trenton without changing governors, electing a Republican governor won’t automatically translate into better government. Electing Christie in a close race, and without a reform-minded group of state legislators, would probably result in something like Schwarzenegger’s term in California, where he slid to the left and avoided controversy after his referenda were rejected by the voters in 2005. State political establishments eat aspiring reformers who don’t have a public mandate to break some eggs.
Besides the epidemic of corruption — kidney-smuggling, people! — if you had to describe New Jersey’s governance for much of the past decade, one word that comes to mind is “complacency.” There seemed to be a sense in Trenton that no matter how voracious, sclerotic, wasteful, and unresponsive state government became, the Garden State could take care of itself. There would always be folks who worked in New York City and wanted to live in the suburbs. The port of Elizabeth would always be a major trade center. The pharmaceutical and chemical industries in the middle of the state would always employ plenty of residents. People would always go to the Jersey shore on vacation and to Atlantic City to gamble. Money would always flow in, tax revenues would always be higher, and the state could always spend as much as lawmakers wanted — including creating those patronage jobs and various and sundry ways of rewarding donors.
But now the New York financial industry has taken a hit, the housing markets have taken a severe tumble, median income is crashing, people have less disposable income for the beaches and the casinos, unemployment is the worst in 32 years, and the state has fewer private-sector jobs than it did in 1999. You cannot treat your populace as an ever-replenishing source of revenue for government spending. After a while, people start asking, “Why am I living here?”
If elected, Chris Christie will lead a state facing problems on the scale of New York City when Rudy Giuliani took over in January 1994. Hopefully he’ll be as tenacious, stubborn, and relentless as that leader across the river. But his leverage with failing state bureaucracies would be seriously strengthened by a healthy electoral majority, not eking out a win with 51 percent.