The Pros and Cons of Christie's "One-termer" Approach to Governing

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Governor Christie stated, “I said all during the campaign last year that I was going to govern as if I was a one-termer. And everybody felt that it was just stuff you say during a campaign to sound good. I think after the first 12 weeks, given the stuff I’ve done, they figure: ‘He’s just crazy enough to do it.'” Indeed.

That is something to admire in an elected official.

His recent refusal to re-appoint Justice Wallace is another such example of political courage. By all accounts, Mr. Wallace is a great man personally. He volunteers in his community and is loved by everyone who knows him. He is, however, wrong on many judicial fronts and has been one of the court’s most activists judges.

Any other politician would have allowed him to serve his remaining 2 years until his mandatory retirement. Chris Christie, however, saw the opportunity to begin reigning in the activist judiciary that has played to key a role in destroying New Jersey’s economic standing through a series of bad decisions. Folks on the other side of the aisle will criticize him for politicizing the judiciary branch, but it is quite the opposite. The New Jersey judiciary branch has made itself more political in the increasingly activist decisions that legislate from the bench. Christie’s action here is a move towards restoring the judicial branch to its original jurisdiction.

The problem that someone with the raw political courage of Christie often has, however, is picking the right fights and staying on message. These are two areas where the governor is currently struggling. He would do well to follow his Education Commissioner Bret Schundler in this area.

Christie’s problem is rather unique in the political world. Too often the folks that we elect are unwilling or unable to confront the problems facing our state and our country. Too often, they let politics decide the right course instead of sticking to their principles and doing what is right. And too often, the American people reward folks who do just that. We’ve become comfortable with status quo. We like politicians that tell us what we want to hear, even if they govern in complete defiance to their rhetoric.

We have come to a time of reckoning, however, where the political paradigm is shifting unlike anything we have ever seen in our lifetime. The recent economic collapse in Greece and the potential worldwide impact that could result is causing American economists and investors some concern. With an out of control federal government charging towards the same economic cliff that Greece just careened over, every American should be concerned.

The folks at the federal level have no interest in saving America’s free market system. Everything they have done has been towards the goal of expanding government at unprecedented levels while usurping and crushing private industry at every opportunity.

President Obama and his leftist ideologues are pining away for a day when America represents European-style socialism at a time when Europe is beginning to wake up from it’s drunken binge with socialism. Germany and France already have more conservative leadership at the helm. Britain’s national election this week also saw the conservative party take the largest share of seats in decades in a clear repudiation of the failed government-centered economy by which the only growth evident is the size of government and the tax burden imposed upon struggling private citizens.

All of this adds up to a perfect economic storm in which Europe will begin recovering its economic might by undoing the destructive socialist shackles it has bound itself with for so long, even as America is tightening the economic noose of socialism around Lady Liberty’s neck.

In that sense, having Governor Christie boldly attempting to economically emancipate New Jersey from decades of financial mismanagement may put New Jersey in a prime position to lead America’s eventual financial recovery. That is why the battles he chooses to fight and how he chooses to engage himself is so important.

Although this conservative doesn’t agree with Governor Christie’s near-obsessive demonization of New Jersey’s teachers, I do value his commitment to making hard decisions and standing up for the taxpayers.

Regarding New Jersey, Christie stated that, “We are, I think, the failed experiment in America—the best example of a failed experiment in America—on taxes and bigger government. Over the last eight years, New Jersey increased taxes and fees 115 times.”

The sad reality is that he is right.

Governors Florio, Whitman, McGreevey and Corzine spent the last 20 years digging an economic hole for New Jersey that dwarfs those of other high-profile economically challenged states like California and New York. Percentage-wise, we have much harder choices and deeper cuts to make in order to get the state moving again.

The way we fund our government and the vastness of our government needs to be radically changed. New Jersey needs to become a haven for economic activity and not an economically oppressed cesspool from which people and corporations flee. Florio, McGreevey and Corzine refused to see this reality and Whitman lacked the resolve to fully take it on, offering only quasi-conservative economic policies that only masked and delayed New Jersey’s coming economic armageddon.

Christie’s current obsession is education. While local school districts have severely mismanaged the resources given them, it is by and large the state that has destroyed the education system through nefarious Robin Hood funding schemes designed to punish efficient school systems and preserve generations of New Jersey residents trapped in poverty by rewarding failure. Governor Christie represents the best chance in a generation for the people of this state to finally change the way education is funded for good.

The issue most on Governor Christie’s mind these days is related to the state pension system. When he attacks the pension system’s unfunded “$90 billion in liabilities” for pensions and health benefits, however, understand that this is a calamity of the state’s making. Instead of funding pensions promised to employees upon employment, the state has instead opted to spend that money elsewhere, much like the federal government has done with the soon-to-be-bankrupt social security. The solution to such a nefarious book-cooking move is not to rob from retirees, however. If New Jersey wants to restore its good name, it needs to keep its commitments. Reform is necessary, but reforms should be grandfathered to new hires, not to folks who have spent 30 years or more working for something promised to them by their employer. New hires will be able to choose whether or not the new reduced pensions are something they can agree to.
Governor Christie can not let his understandable hatred of the unions blind him in this. It is not the union officials who will suffer from the actions he will take. It is retirees like my father, who worked nearly 40 years in education, often working 2 or 3 side jobs in order to make ends meet.

Christie has an opportunity to shift the paradigm on education spending here and create a model for conservatives to follow throughout the country. His decisions need to be wise and fair and he needs to look past the childish “death threats” and “death-inducing prayers” offered by his union counterparts. To win the debate, he needs to be above the demonization and simplistic approach that rejects everything the opposition has to say because its “a lie” or “evil” (a tactic of NJEA that he frequently denounces in public appearances.) He will diminish himself and the cause of education reform if he allows himself to respond in kind.

To his credit, Governor Christie understands that money isn’t the answer. His Education Commissioner Bret Schundler has pointed this out repeatedly. Spending $22,000 a year per student in places like Newark, where less than a third of the students graduate is foolishness. And any union that defends that should be called on it. Our inner cities have been a bastion of cronyism and institutionalized incompetence for decades. And thanks to court decisions by activists judges like Wallace done in collusion with the executive and legislative branch, this has all been funded by soaring property taxes on suburban districts.

If he’s going to govern like a one-termer, however, Mr. Christie would do well to start shining the political spotlight on some of the other ways that government can reign in spending. Capping property taxes rates, eventually reducing income taxes and moving forward with Lt. Governor Guadagno’s committee to streamline and simplify the gargantuan business regulations put into effect by former Goldman Sachs Executive Jon Corzine will help to free New Jersey from the economic albatross around her neck.

Governor Christie should move to start making cuts in other departments (including his own office) as a priority. Obsessive focus on the education spending alone is too narrow. If New Jersey is going to survive financially, it will have to cut costs in every corner of the state. Governor Christie proposed as much in his state budget proposal earlier this year. He has, however, allowed the debate on education funding to suck up all of the oxygen in the room. It’s time to start highlighting fraud and waste in other corners of the state. Right or wrong, Christie is now one of the most high profile conservatives in the nation today. He needs to advance a comprehensive conservative agenda or risk the inevitable failure of the half and half approach of Governor Whitman. In the age of government largesse, Christie needs to give voters a complete (and accurate depiction) of conservatism in action.

Right now one of the most potent arguments that the education folks have against the governor is that his focus on “financial reform” is solely focused on education when there are more egregious abuses elsewhere going unaddressed. Christie needs to prove them wrong by taking on the other fraud and waste that his budget initially targeted. He should make cutting his office budget below that of Jon Corzine’s a priority. Christie needs to show the people that he means what he says, or leave risk leaving himself vulnerable to claims of hypocrisy.

To do that, the state needs to be smart about how they trim the fat.

Looking at new ways to fund schools and hold teachers accountable is admirable, but needs to be done tactfully. We can appreciate Governor Christie’s political fortitude to take on the NJEA, but he needs to make informed choices. Cutting medical benefits for retirees and blindly brushing aside concerns raised by the unions that “teaching to the test” would result if merit pay went into effect are not productive. Instead of throwing retirees to the wolves, why not promote private industry by partnering with health insurers to see what you can do about creating a more affordable plan for your employees? Allow more health companies to compete in New Jersey, a move that will insure thousands more and reduce costs. And if merit pay is to have any credibility, every effort needs to be made to craft a system by which “teaching to the test” is avoided. There are very valid concerns that such a program brings up. He needs to consult teachers regarding this. Maybe not the foaming at the mouth political union hacks, but rank and file teachers committed to making a difference.

Additionally, Governor Christie’s political backbone sometimes fails him in leading him to take on too many peripheral issues and losing focus on the main fight. Yes, many of the union hacks are overpaid. That comes from union dues, however, and doesn’t impact the state budget. Should the union perhaps cut back on the overhead and refund some of the exorbitant amount of dues forced on their members? Absolutely. Governor Christie should keep the heat on unions for those things, but he needs to stop making it a focus of his agenda. He has bigger fish to fry.

On this front, Mr. Schundler can lead the way. He has some great ideas about reform, ideas that many teachers could get behind. These need to be pursued and improved upon with the aid of New Jersey’s teachers. His meeting this week with the NJEA to discuss partnering for the state’s application for $400 million in federal funding is a good step forward. In Jersey City, Mr. Schundler demonstrated himself to be an innovative man capable of crossing party aisles to bring about much needed and difficult to pass reforms. His governance of Jersey City and the economic recovery his tenure brought about there is a testimony to successful conservative governance in a dark blue state.

A lot is riding on Christie’s bold reforms. He cannot allow himself to get bogged down on side issues and miss the big picture. He needs to aggressively attack spending and waste in all corners of the state. He needs to shape the debate and not let the debate shape him. If he can successfully do that, he might just be more than a one term governor and New Jersey will be better for it.