Politics & Policy

For ‘A Serious Man,’ This Is It

New Jersey's Democratic governor tries to fend off a Republican challenger.

When you’re a Democrat in a 13-day crisis situation, it never hurts to call in a Kennedy and a president. New Jersey governor Jon Corzine did just that on Wednesday at a rally in Hackensack, a town straight out of a Bruce Springsteen song. Like a lot of the Boss’s tunes, Corzine’s hope-a-thon with Caroline Kennedy and President Obama featured plenty of head-bopping major chords that couldn’t quite overwhelm the melancholy motif. With less than two weeks until voters decide whether to dump Corzine, there wasn’t much even these headliners could to do to brighten the mood.

Corzine’s in-house DJ tried to gin up the few hundred supporters waiting in the cramped, wood-beamed basketball arena at Farleigh Dickinson University with Michael Jackson tunes. “Who here misses Michael Jackson?” the unseen narrator repeatedly screeched, to scattered applause. Even the rows of excited women in pink and Corzine pins plopped behind the podium for the network cameras weren’t feeling it. Get on with the show, their faces said.

Corzine, tied with Republican challenger Chris Christie in the latest polls, still suffers from a 33 percent approval rating, according to the New York Times. Corzine knows that he’s unpopular, and that even after nearly a decade as the Garden State’s U.S. senator or governor he’s still an unknown character to most voters — elected, rich, powerful, and mostly unloved. If he’s known for anything, it’s for being governor during a period of hurt for New Jersey, the Trenton office manager responsible for presiding over a state with backbreaking property taxes and rising unemployment.

Before taking the stage, Corzine was introduced by Loretta Weinberg, his running mate, a lady the crowd knew as their local state senator. She stuck to talking about Obama, praising him for his Nobel Peace Prize win and for helping to inspire Americans of “all colors.” When she did touch on politics, she sounded like a Kennedy (Teddy, on Robert Bork), tearing into “Chris Christie’s New Jersey.” Then, a real Kennedy appeared (Caroline), who, in her usual soft tones, rambled for a couple minutes about how Jersey has “always been good to the Kennedy family” — to her father in 1960, and especially in 1980, when one of them (Teddy) won the state’s Democratic primary against Jimmy Carter.

Corzine soon appeared, like an opening band at a rock show where the only interest is in the main act. From the press holding pen, it was interesting to see some supporters stream to the concession area while the governor yelled “hey, everybody!” (Note to Corzine: When soda and potato chips draw crowds away, you should be worried.)

Corzine, usually a bore, was energized. “I hope you’re excited as I am!” he said. Talking about Obama, it seemed, was much easier for him than documenting Jersey’s woes. “Our inspirational president, Barack Obama . . . is challenging us to reach for the horizon,” he said. Then, of course, more talk about a Kennedy (Teddy): “Senator Kennedy is calling from the heavens” to encourage us to fight for the “right to quality health care,” said Corzine.

Then Corzine went on a typical anti-Bush tangent. President Obama, he said, has “rejected the failed Republican philosophy,” and fought for a philosophy where “we’re all in this together.” More important, said Corzine, was that Obama had changed “how the world views America.” New Jersey needs its own Obama, Corzine said, reassuring attendees that he was that guy — not “like Sarah Palin and Mark Sanford,” who would have “rejected recovery funds.”

Caroline Kennedy stood politely behind Corzine as he continued to rant. It all seemed rather unserious, and a bit uncomfortable for the Camelot scion. Thankfully for her, Corzine abruptly finished, drowned out by cheers the moment he mentioned the president’s name. Finally, for the crowd, this was it.

Obama jumped on stage, mingled with the ladies behind the podium, and kissed Kennedy and Weinberg before giving Corzine a hearty handshake. The crowd went nuts. Then, unfortunately, it was time for the president to speak about that most exciting of topics, Jon Corzine.

Corzine, said Obama, “is running in a challenging time for New Jersey and America,” when “too many folks are out of work.” Nods, murmurs in agreement. Then, it was time to bring in the usual piñata. Voters “have selective memory about how we got into this fix,” said Obama. It was not Corzine but “trickle-down economics” and “lax regulations” that caused the recession. Anyone who says otherwise “has a lot of nerve . . . complaining about how fast we’re cleaning this up.” Corzine, the former Goldman Sachs executive, beamed.

We need to “cast aside the cynics and the skeptics,” said Obama. “I know what you want from political leaders and you dont want somebody who is slick,” he added — referencing Christie, who actually is anything but, at least according to the Corzine campaign, which has mocked Christie’s weight in its ads. The bearded governor, he said, doesn’t “always look well-groomed. I mean, Jons hair kind of goes frizzy sometimes and, you know, his beard gets a little, you know, straggly sometimes.” Nonetheless, Corzine, said Obama, is “a serious man.”

To emphasize the point, Obama, perhaps called from Saul Alinsky in the heavens, began a classic community-organizer incantation. “If everybody is serious,” if “everybody is committed,” then Corzine can win. Voters, he said, needed to be “fired up, and ready to go.” The crowd responded, though not too strong. “Are you fired up?” Obama bellowed. “Fired up!” said the crowd. “Are you ready to go?” he continued. “Ready to go!” yelled the Corzinites. It was a nice moment for the president, basking in the warm love of a friendly crowd chanting back to him his ’08 cheer.

If only for a moment. As the Newark Star-Ledger reports, before the event, as supporters lined up to enter the arena, “there was little of the rock-concert atmosphere that greeted Obama when he stumped for Corzine at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel in July. . . . At one point, a supporter tried to start Obama’s signature ‘Fired Up, Ready to Go’ chant with little success. ‘Come on, this is a rally!’ he shouted to the subdued onlookers.”

Corzine, though, could still win this race. A new Rutgers-Eagleton poll shows him leading Christie with 39 percent of the vote. Christie takes in 36 percent, with independent Chris Daggett continuing to surge with 20 percent.

Whether the Obama and Kennedy appearances in the final days will help New Jersey’s serious man remains to be seen. As much as Corzine craves momentum, the event — and others this week with big names like former president Bill Clinton — have appeared to be more about the guest than the host.

Indeed, as the Boss once sang, trying to recapture the passion of the past “leaves you with nothing, mister, but boring stories of glory days.”

– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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