If this season of our discontent was any less hectic, bereft of tales sounding warnings of diseases ravaging the globe, foreign antagonists lopping off the heads of relief workers, or men with questionable sartorial choices landing spacecraft on comets, we might have more time for what should be one of the defining stories of American politics. The tale takes place in New Jersey, where Governor Chris Christie has found himself caught up in a pig problem.
As with so many of the absurdities which characterize election season, this crisis is a full-blown dust devil, summoned out of essentially nothing by the media, but speaking to an actual issue beneath all the bluster. The legislature of the Garden State has now, for the second time in as many years, passed a law which seeks to ban the use of gestational crates by pig farmers. The cages are small, allowing a pregnant sow no room to roam, turn around, or really do anything other than stand or lie down over the course of her pregnancy.
To clear up my personal take on the question, these crates are cruel. I don’t come to the subject from a background as a bystander. Growing up, all of my aunts and uncles were farmers, and one of them raised pigs. I spent portions of a few summers helping out with the chores there and came to know the pigs on a first hand basis. It’s a tough business for the farmer and, some might argue, an even less attractive proposition for the pigs.
I’m no vegan, nor any other sort of Gaia-worshiping acolyte who denies the right of man to feed himself by way of animal husbandry. But by the same token, I don’t approve of farmers treating their stock with any unnecessary cruelty. The animals should have as calm and pleasant a life as possible until they head for our dinner plates and any suffering should be reduced as much as is possible. These crates are unreasonably small, so I support regulations which allow the sows a bit more room to move about.
None of that, however, plays overly much into the discussion at hand. The previously noted legislation has been vetoed by Governor Chris Christie. His reasons are rather obvious, and it has nothing to do with any sort of porcine induced-childhood trauma or a deep, abiding hatred of unclean animals sporting cloven hooves. Making the story even more strange is the fact that there are only a handful of pig farmers in New Jersey and they don’t tend to use the gestational crates in the first place. In this sense, the governor was mostly correct when he described the legislation as “a solution in search of a problem.”
But the crates are used elsewhere and could — in theory — catch on in New Jersey. There was no reason to prevent such a ban unless it was a baldly political one. The cheers erupting in Iowa over the governor’s decision are all we need see in seeking an explanation for the decision. But was a bacon-flavored tempest in a teapot truly worth the political capital that Christie is dumping into this issue? The debate isn’t fading, and his own legislature is looking to gain as much mileage off of it as possible, working well into the holiday season to attempt an override of his veto.
And for what? There is a victory lap going on with the governor’s team at the moment, but such a display of blatant bovarism seems unwarranted. This issue of gestational crates isn’t exactly on the lips of voters around the nation, nor will opposition to the ban be a deciding — or even popular — issue in the swing states. In fact, Iowa may be the only place in the nation where such an unseemly fight could possibly be viewed as productive. But Chris Christie is still Chris Christie and Iowa is still Iowa.
The polling to date among the cornhuskers doesn’t hold any surprises. Christie places a poor fifth consistently, with the more conventionally conservative candidates such as Mike Huckabee nearly doubling his numbers. Like it or not, Christie’s earlier touchy, feely moments with the president and his northeastern bloodlines have marked him with the indelible odor of the consummate establishment candidate. That title didn’t slow down Mitt Romney in 2012 and could, if the cards all fell perfectly, serve Christie well in a long, drawn-out national primary battle. But it’s not going to do anything for him in the state that chased out T-Paw with a hot showing for Michele Bachmann.
The veto of the pig crate bill was a disaster for Christie. It was a classic case of picking a fight which never needed to be fought, and the imagery of pigs in cages will be tempting fodder for political hacks. If he’d simply signed it into law he would have found approbation with is own constituents and robbed his opponents of a cudgel to wield against him. The cost, as measured by the damage to his reputation in Iowa, might have been at most the difference between losing their caucus in 2016 by twenty points instead of eighteen. By contrast, the gesture of sympathy for the marginal comfort of tasty farm animals could have gone some ways toward blunting his sharp edges in the eyes of moderate voters.
Chris Christie has won a brief skirmish in a state which will never love him. Only later will we learn how much it cost him across the rest of the nation. But I’m sure someone on his team still thinks he can carry Iowa… when pigs fly.