Politicians as Civics Teachers

In this week’s New York Times Magazine, Matt Bai has a very sympathetic profile of Jon Corzine. Bai makes a number of very good points, including the following:

To bring about reform now, politicians need to be not just good campaigners and public stewards but civics teachers too, able communicators who can reassert a connection in the public mind between costs and services, between the policies that Congress and state governments pursue and the money you end up paying your town for garbage collection and the local library. Corzine and Daggett are both trying to do this, in their own ways, though neither is the ideal vehicle; Corzine is a cautious reformer with little talent for explanation, and Daggett’s campaign is too hard up for cash to communicate much of anything. Christie’s campaign, on the other hand, seems lifted from the days before last year’s economic collapse, when it seemed possible to have everything, and all at once. Those fellow governors who sympathize with Corzine are watching his campaign play out, hoping to find out whether the case for painful choices, as they see it, is any easier to make in this era than it was in the last. “If Jon wins, and I believe he deserves to, I think a lot of other governors will say, It’s O.K. to tell people the truth; it’s O.K. to give out some tough medicine,” Ed Rendell, the Democratic governor in neighboring Pennsylvania, told me. “And I think more governors will be inspired to do that. If he loses, I think it will have a chilling effect.”

But I have to say, I find Rendell’s remarks extremely self-serving. And I’m struck by the fact that Bai never mentions Mitch Daniels of Indiana, a governor who has done an excellent job of being frank with the public about the tradeoffs involved in tax and spending decisions.

I’ll add that Republican gubernatorial candidates, particularly those running in liberal states, often suffer from free-lunchism, i.e., an ideology based on tax cuts and spending hikes in boom years. That certainly seems to be true of Christie. Consider the following from Bai’s article:

This history probably explains why Christie has avoided offering details of a plan to bring down property taxes or reform the state’s dire finances, instead running a campaign that is almost a caricature of the modern, tax-slashing conservative pitch. He says he would repeal all the sales taxes, toll hikes and surcharges imposed by Corzine and cut income taxes as well, while at the same time somehow offering more property-tax rebates — a feat that would seem to defy the laws of economics, if not physics. Christie has also said he would decline any federal money that imposed restrictions on the state. To replace all of this revenue, Christie says he will rein in wasteful spending. Only about a fifth of New Jersey’s budget, however, goes to pay for the actual bureaucracy of government; all the rest pays for sacrosanct programs like Medicaid and school aid. As his opponents never tire of pointing out, Christie could fire every single one of the 66,000 employees in state government, and still he wouldn’t make up for the revenue he says he wants to eliminate.

When asked how he intended to pull this off, Christie offered a bizarre reply.

New Jersey has had a string of politicians, Jon Corzine the latest, who made all types of specific promises that they knew they couldn’t keep,” Christie told me. “New Jerseyans want to know what direction are you going to take the state in, what philosophy are you going to pursue. They’re not looking for specific promises that can’t be kept.” Hai-yah! Christie was turning the traditional notion of political accountability on its head: not only was it not unprincipled to make a bunch of vague campaign promises that had almost no chance of becoming reality, but in fact it was also the only truly principled thing to do, because politicians never followed through on the details of their proposals, anyway. When he gets to Trenton, Christie assured me, “We’ll get in there and make it work.”

It is easy to see why conservatives oppose Corzine. Bai offers a persuasive narrative of how New Jersey fell into a death-spiral of excessive government spending, rooted in the extreme fragmentation of local government. I tend to think that there’s a real risk of local governments becoming too large, as diseconomies of scale emerge in large, anonymous cities governed by an unresponsive political class. Yet it’s clear that many of New Jersey’s microgovernments aren’t delivering real value or meaningful Tiebout choice; rather, they are entities solely devoted to rent-extraction. To his credit, Corzine has proposed local government consolidation, an idea New Jersey voters have resoundingly rejected. Though Corzine has tried to restrain spending and address the state’s revenue shortfall, this failure to solve the structural problem begs the question of why he’s running for reelection at all.

Given that Corzine lacks the political acumen to tackle New Jersey’s problems and Christie is offering wildly unrealistic promises, does Daggett represent an alternative for conservative voters in the state? I can’t say. I do get the impression that his fiscal proposal, essentially to use a wider revenue base for the sales tax to fund property tax relief, is better that what the other candidates are offering. Yet it’s not clear that Daggett is willing to make the deep cuts in spending that New Jersey needs.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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