Something's happening in the state of New Jersey.
Over the weekend, I traveled from my home in Brooklyn to the ancestral Romano estate on the Jersey shore to celebrate Father's Day with my family. I've been making the trip on NJ Transit's 137 bus for years, but this time I was in for a surprise: the ride now cost about $20, one way—a 50 percent increase from only a few months before. Ouch.
When I got to my parents' house—and recovered from the customary offering of heart-clogging snacks that always accompanies my arrival—I noticed a stack of official-looking papers on the kitchen table. Turns out they were documents from the state demanding that one of my now-retired parents, both of whom spent their careers working in New Jersey's public schools, give up his or her health insurance and sign onto the other's plan as a dependent.
Perhaps the weirdest part, though, was the buzz that night at the bar. My New Jersey friends aren't political animals. They don't work in Trenton or obsessively watch FOX News. But on Saturday, over beers, they couldn't stop talking about the sort of stuff that usually puts non-wonks to sleep: teacher pay freezes, property-tax caps, local school budgets, the "millionaire" tax, and so on.
As I said, weird.
The person to blame for these changes—or to credit, depending on where you stand—is the Garden State's freshman governor, Chris Christie. Since taking office in January, the hulking former prosecutor has embarked on an aggressive crusade to slash spending and repair the state's wildly out-of-whack finances. (Next year's projected deficit of $10.7 billion is the worst in the country.) The onslaught has made Christie a lot of enemies among liberals in New Jersey, who have taken to calling him "Governor Bully" and slamming him for declaring "war" on schoolteachers. It's also made him very, very popular with fellow travelers outside the state--including some guy named Rush Limbaugh.
In fact, Christie Fever is now so widespread on the right—bloggers and activists regularly salivate over YouTube videos of the tough-talking governor "lighting into Democrats, teachers' unions, and journalists critical of his style"—that Dave Weigel, a blogger for The Washington Post who covers the conservative movement, is now declaring that Christie is "a clear frontrunner for the GOP's 2012 vice-presidential nomination." "In two years, when the GOP's nominee starts looking to fill out his ticket, who will have more appeal to the base and a better record on issues that every conservative agrees with?" Weigel writes. "Who will make them more confident about his (or her) ability to tear apart Vice President Joe Biden in a debate?"
It is, of course, far too early to predict the 2012 GOP ticket. After all, Mark Sanford was a "frontrunner" at one point, too. But conservatives are right to be excited about what Christie's doing in New Jersey. During his first eight weeks in office, he cut a reported $13 billion in planned government spending. He proposed—and has now passed—an austere budget that reduces school aid by $820 million, drops 1,000 state workers, assumes $50 million in savings from privatization, and skips a $3 billion contribution to the state pension system. He has refused to reinstate a tax on residents earning more than $400,000 a year, citing research that claims the Garden State suffered a net outflow of $70 billion in wealth between 2004 and 2008, while also proposing a 2.5 percent cap on annual property-tax increases. When unionized teachers refused to accept pay freezes or chip in for their own health insurance to make up for the cuts in state aid, Christie encouraged New Jerseyans to vote down local school budgets that slashed programs or raised property taxes instead. He's even broken with tradition by replacing a sitting New Jersey Supreme Court justice with a more conservative alternative.
In short, Christie is governing like a one-termer, enacting every conservative proposal he campaigned on and mounting, as Weigel puts it, "the most energetic challenge to the liberal consensus [anyone] can remember."
It's no surprise that liberal New Jerseyans are not happy with the painful sacrifices that Christie is demanding—some of my friends and relatives among them. But anyone on either side of the aisle who's fed up with our focus-grouped, winning-is-everything political culture should be watching Governor Bully closely. Christie's crusade is not about 2012 or 2016; he doesn't seem to mind being unpopular. Instead, it's about testing conservative principles against the hard stuff of reality. New Jersey's constitution endows the governor with more power than most of his counterparts, and so far Christie has not been shy about exercising it.
As a result, the Garden State has suddenly become a fascinating test case for GOP governance: can a conservative response ameliorate this fiscal crisis, at least on the state level? Can Republican leadership—as opposed to the Republican oppositionism we see in Washington—actually solve problems? If the notoriously misgoverned (and largely ungovernable) New Jersey considers itself better off in a few years' time—if businesses are moving back to the state, if unemployment is down, if the budget deficits are under control, if the balance between taxes and services is more reasonable—Chris Christie will deserve most of the credit. If not--and there's reason to think that might be the case--conservative policymaking will suffer a blow. Rarely are the battle lines so clearly drawn.
Weigel and Co. are correct, in other words, to point out that what's happening in New Jersey right now is the real deal. But it's the policy implications that are interesting, not the politics—at least for the moment.
Now if only they'd lower that bus fare ...