In looks, demeanor, temperament, and life experience, Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels are as dissimilar as the states from which they hail. The former is a blunt, outspoken, even pugnacious former U.S. attorney with a career in New Jersey noted for reforming a local political cesspool and prosecuting white-collar crime. The latter is a soft-spoken, balding, lifelong Hoosier political junkie who spent a decade as a top executive of a Fortune 500 company.
Despite their seeming opposite natures, the two governors share a common denominator that may hold the key to fostering a new kind of Republican Party where principle and pragmatism combined with confidence and competence offer the voter a real choice in governance.
Neither man can be considered an ideologue. Nor do the two governors pander to any faction in the party or outside of it. Instead, both seem to have hit upon formulas for success that are peculiar to their own state — and their personalities.
By necessity, Governor Christie has found himself in a confrontational role. His state’s finances were in dismal shape when he took over early this year, and arrayed against him were powerful interests bent on submarining his plans to bring budget discipline to Trenton. Public employee unions, including the powerful teachers union, were preparing for war in order to maintain the status quo on pensions and other benefits.
But Christie outfoxed and outhustled his foes. He took to the stump, going around New Jersey explaining in plain language the problems he was dealing with and trying to address.
Rich Lowry, writing in National Review, explains:
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.
Indeed, while California and Illinois whine about hard times and tough choices, begging the Feds for more money so that the state politicians are spared from making cuts to programs that serve their favored constituencies, Christie’s triumph in getting many of the budget cuts and building his own constituency for fiscal discipline is a model for other governors across the country who are feeling the squeeze of tight budgets in hard times.
Where Christie has succeeded with calculated confrontation and a practical streak when it comes to negotiating with the opposition, Mitch Daniels has quietly revolutionized government in Indiana by working with friend and foe to reform the way the needs of citizens are addressed. Using a combination of privatization, creative budgeting, and hard-headed negotiation, Daniels turned a significant $600 million deficit into a $1.2 billion surplus. He was rewarded by being re-elected by the largest margin for a Republican in Indiana’s history.
Both men have been mentioned as possible candidates for president in 2012. Christie has flatly said no, while Daniels has not totally rejected the idea, bearing in mind that the possibility of the Indiana governor throwing his hat in the ring is remote.
Rather than speculate about their political aspirations, it might be more profitable to examine the nature of their success as leaders and wonder if their approach to politics, to the people, and even to the opposition holds any lessons for the rest of the GOP.