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.
Going into the midterm elections, Republicans are rolling. The Democrats are becoming more dispirited as anger against them in the hinterlands grows. Those Democrats who might have been hopeful that the people are beginning to forget about the ObamaCare debacle were disabused of that notion last week when more than 70% of Missourians symbolically rejected individual and business mandates for national health care. Similar measures are on the ballot in two other states — a number that will probably grow.
But with Democrats on the ropes politically, and a favorable climate for a GOP takeover of the House and perhaps even the Senate, the Republican Party has so far failed to offer a coherent plan to get the economy out of the doldrums and create the jobs the U.S. so desperately needs. At this moment, there is no “Contract with America II” around which GOP politicians — both incumbents and challengers — can rally. It would seem the Minority Leader John Boehner is counting on the high level of anger directed against Democrats by voters to drive the GOP to victory in the fall.
Not a bad strategy at all, and one more than likely to work. Make the other guy and his party the issue and let Republican enthusiasm, Democratic activists’ dispiritedness, and independent voter anger at President Obama and the Democrats form a perfect storm that will create a wave that will sweep the majority party out the door and the GOP into power.
As an electoral strategy, one can find little with which to argue. But as a governing strategy, it leaves a lot to be desired.
On January 3, 2011, after being elected speaker of the House, John Boehner is going to have to stand before the American people and inform them how the Republicans are going to clean up President Obama’s mess. A consensus is emerging among economic policy wonks and private economists that things are so bad thanks to the massive spending of the Obama administration that it is going to be impossible to grow our way out of $1.5 trillion deficits without painful — and politically unpopular — cuts in middle-class entitlements.
The GOP is going to have to do something that neither party has demonstrated a capacity to accomplish: look the American people in the eye and give them the straight scoop about how bad things are, and what it is going to cost them to get the economy, the budget, and the country back on track. This is exactly what Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels have done during their terms in office and it has made them the most popular politicians in their states.
Might it not also work on a national level? Making the argument for repealing much of what Obama and the Democrats railroaded through Congress these last two years is easy. Telling seniors that Medicare needs to be cut and that changes need to be made to Social Security so that it survives long enough for their grandchildren to receive benefits is going to be a tough sell. Cutting other favored health and welfare programs will also hurt. Perhaps even military spending will have to be drastically curtailed.
If the GOP really has reformed and has decided to stand on principle, cutting the massive debt created by liberal overreach and ensuring fiscal solvency into the future is going to take the kind of honesty, courage, competence, and optimism exhibited by Daniels and Christie. They have developed different templates for government that work for their states. It remains to be seen whether we can apply the examples they are setting to the national stage and find our way out of this morass of spending and debt.
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