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An ongoing discussion about conservatism in New Jersey.
Christie, CPAC and the conservative meltdown
Peter C. Hansen  (March 2, 2013, 5:12 pm)

The uproar over Gov. Christie's exclusion from this year's CPAC conference has hit a conservative nerve that has grown ever more raw since the 2012 election. Jonah Goldberg, for example, has observed that CPAC's decision could look like a "knee-jerk and insecure retreat at precisely the moment conservatives should be sending the opposite message."

Unfortunately, it seems that CPAC's disdain for Christie is echoed, even if only in muted tones, by the normally tent-expanding editors of National Review, who state in their critique of CPAC's decision that Christie "remains wildly popular with self-described conservatives and Republicans in his own state." Any NJ conservative has to note the term "self-described" with concern. Its insertion by the editors – which was not necessary – clearly suggests a suspicion that at least some NJ conservatives are squishes or even liberals suffering from a false consciousness. That is both ridiculous and pernicious, and it reflects the influence of a regional form of conservatism that is making it hard for Republicans to compete nationally, and especially in blue states like NJ.

The three criticisms presently leveled against Christie by CPAC and others (including Goldberg) are that Christie: (1) is tough on guns; (2) harangued Congressional Republicans to pass the Sandy relief bill; and (3) surrendered to Obamacare's Medicaid expansion.

The first two charges can be readily answered in light of non-ideological factors. With respect to guns, the state's laws – whether or not they are optimal or even reasonably sensible – reflect the fact that NJ is 14 times as densely populated as the U.S. as a whole. One can't do a lot of shooting on the half-acre such density affords the average Jerseyan. (Average Americans can meanwhile blast away on their seven acres apiece.) As for the Sandy bill, everyone – including Christie – knew it was a pork-laden disaster, but it was the job of Congress, not Christie, to produce a clean bill. Instead, red states like Alaska and Mississippi loaded up their plates at the pork trough while Jerseyans waited for the bill to pass. It takes some chutzpah to accuse Christie of bad faith when he called on Congress, and the House Republican leadership, to stop the game abruptly. If Christie didn't respect the rules of the DC Dance, it wasn't his job to do so. Christie, like NJ, was tired of being a pawn in the national game of thrones.

This pawnsmanship brings us naturally to the Medicaid criticism, which rankles most of all. One Weekly Standard writer, Jeffrey H. Anderson, put the matter bluntly: "What good does it do to have Republican governors [like Christie] if the federal government can buy them off nearly as easily as it can buy off Democratic governors?" Such a swipe is ridiculous. Christie's Republican bona fides can hardly be in doubt, given that he not only reined in the state's hugely powerful public-sector unions, but won the respect of state Democrats while doing so. Once again, it is not Christie's job to play in Mr. Anderson's fantasy football league. His job is to run a state government. Mr. Anderson most clearly reveals his partisan disregard for facts when he lumps Christie in with the other Republican governors who have surrendered to the Medicaid expansion. Such a comparison could not be less apt.

Of the seven other states whose Republican governors have given in, only one – Nevada – has had a tax-benefit ratio comparable to New Jersey's. (Such data goes back to FY2005, but is the latest available.) The other six have gotten back from DC nearly all, or even far more than, the taxes they have sent to DC – Arizona ($1.19 back for $1 in tax), Florida (97¢), Michigan (92¢), New Mexico ($2.03 - 1st out of 50), North Dakota ($1.68) and Ohio ($1.05). The Great Recession has in the interim likely raised the tax-benefit ratio for Florida and Michigan well over parity, given the housing bust in Florida and the vast federal investment in Michigan's car industry. Likewise, even Nevada has probably moved far closer to parity given its housing bust and the massive hit to Vegas gaming. In the case of NJ, meanwhile, the tax-benefit ratio was worst in the nation – 50th out of 50 – in 2005, with the Garden State getting just 61¢ back for every $1 of tax it sent to Washington. Moreover, NJ has been at the bottom 17 times out of the 25 years up to 2005, and has remained at or near the bottom since.

Thus, for at least six of the seven comparator states, and possibly all seven, each governor's decision was made in light of an already neutral or beneficial relationship with the federal government. A principled vision was therefore much less obscured by fiscal and political considerations. In the case of NJ, however, Christie had to deal with a chronically and deeply unfavorable fiscal relationship with the federal government. It is exceedingly hard to ask Jerseyans to forego federal funds – that is to say, getting some of their money back – out of ideological principle or loyalty to a national partisan agenda. The fact that Christie resisted Obamacare vociferously, surrendered on the Medicaid expansion only reluctantly, and has still refused to set up a state exchange, shows that his bow was purely prudential. As with his criticized embrace of Obama during the Sandy crisis, Christie astutely weighed the costs and benefits of his options for NJ, and acted according to this political calculus. It has won him immense popularity in the Garden State. Only the most abstracted partisan would disregard these necessary calculations and demand politically harmful or even suicidal stands.

Meanwhile, of the 14 Republican governors who win Mr. Anderson's approval as "holding the line" on the Medicaid expansion, fully 12 already have net-positive fiscal relationships with the federal government, with ratios ranging from $1.01 (Georgia) to $2.02 (Mississippi). In other words, NJ taxpayers are – and for a long time have been – subsidizing their states. It is easy to "hold the line" with the right hand while being bought off (in Mr. Anderson's words) with the left. It is also hypocritical to claim the mantle of Republican purity while being subsidized by other Republicans who must consequently make tougher political calls. As for the remaining two states "holding the line" – Texas and Wisconsin – their negative fiscal relationships with the feds (94¢ and 86¢ back, respectively) are nowhere near as bad as New Jersey's 61¢ return. It is therefore much easier for their governors to resist the federal fiscal press.

The national commentariat's elevation of governors in fiscally favored states, and their silence about underlying conditions, points to the need to level the field when comparing ideological purity. After all, it can hardly be fair to decry Christie's alleged ideological impurity, and praise the relative purity of Alabama governor Robert Bentley, unless the two governors run comparable states. To run such a comparison, the conditions must first be normalized.

In the case of New Jersey and Alabama, such normalization is quite difficult for a number of reasons ranging from population density to fiscal relationships with the feds. It would hardly be possible to make New Jersey resemble Alabama, as this would require a degree of depopulation and economic regression that would haul NJ back in time many decades, if not a century or more. It is much easier and more natural to make Alabama resemble New Jersey, as this follows the normal progression toward larger and more economically diversified populations. Why don't we try this as a thought experiment?

To get Alabama to resemble New Jersey, Alabama's population density would have to rise by a factor of 12.66 (i.e. from 94.4 to 1,195.5 people per square mile in 2010). That would raise Alabama's population in 2010 from 4,779,745 to 60,511,572 people. Imagine how crowded Alabama's woods and hills would be with almost 56 million more people around! This population would also be far more diverse. Alabama's population in 2010 was 66.8% non-Hispanic white and 26.5% black, with the remaining 6.7% comprising Latinos, Asians, mixed-race persons, etc. By constrast, the inhabitants of New Alabama would be only 58.9% non-Hispanic white and only 14.6% black, with the remaining 26.5% being from other racial categories, particularly Hispanic (18.1%) and Asian (8.7%). Imagine what a change it would be to have all those honky-tonk roadhouses not only now surrounded by developments, but turned into curry restaurants and Salvadoran shops!

No doubt Gov. Bentley would continue to hew to the preferences of the good old boys in their pickups. After all, rural traditions must be maintained, even if the incoming hordes of Italians, Poles, Hungarians, Russians, Jews, Puerto Ricans, Chinese, Gujaratis, Punjabis, Nigerians, Ghanaians and others have no memory of them as they arrive to populate endless tracts of suburban houses. Perhaps Gov. Bentley could spend some state funds on programs to acculturate the newcomers to the small native population's cherished customs of skeet shooting and deer hunting (in the few remaining tracts of field and forest, that is). But wait! New Alabama's rapid rise up the economic ladder has not only attracted millions of new citizens and vastly raised their cost of living, but has also reversed the federal subsidies of yesteryear!

Whereas Gov. Bentley formerly got a tidy profit on Alabama's tax dollars, getting back $1.66 for each buck sent to Washington, New Alabama is losing 39¢ on every dollar! The state has gone from 7th to 50th in the tax-benefit ratio ranking! The feds are sucking New Alabama dry! Well, no doubt Gov. Bentley is made of the sternest stuff, and will continue to raise his hand to Washington, not with an outstretched palm – Heaven forfend! – but with the same old forbidding gesture of defiance. (Federal deposits used to be conveniently made into the other hand, which was held behind the back.) For that, Gov. Bentley will earn the plaudits of partisan activists and commentators in New York and Washington. These praises will no doubt pacify the masses of New Alabamians who would otherwise demand – ever more loudly – why they are leaving money on the table while far-away, still-rural Alaska not only sucks down New Alabamian tax dollars (at $1.84 back for each $1 put in) but also recently got a ton of pork out of a bill supposedly aimed at helping New Alabama recover from a storm.

Of course, staunch old Gov. Bentley could be expected in such circumstances to let Alaska's representatives – and indeed Congress more generally – play such games, and even to have killed the relief bill if it suited them. Moreover, it would be de rigueur for Gov. Bentley to snub the president when he dropped by, given that the president was from the opposing party. What would Gov. Bentley care about the president's control over the relief agencies? Pish posh! The president would never stoop to retaliation, and federal help could easily be dispensed with anyway. Plus, even if New Alabamians generally like the president, they really take their political cues from out-of-state partisan Republican commentators. Everyone knows that, don't they?

Now, if all this New Alabama stuff seems crazy, it only goes to show that New Jersey is not Alabama, and that Gov. Christie's political calculus cannot be the same as Gov. Bentley's. If Bentley governs Apple, Christie governs Orange. This doesn't mean – contrary to the moaning of many national commentators – that blue-state conservatism isn't authentic, or real, or viable. It simply means that there cannot be one form or expression of conservatism across the entire country. Put another way, while conservatism can promote universal principles and truths, it cannot implement them in the same way in each place. The conceit of today's alleged "national" conservatism is that ideological uniformity must be pushed everywhere, whatever the cost.

This oddly Soviet approach is not just ironic, it is based on a false premise. There is no "national" conservatism beyond a core (but unenumerated) set of shared theoretical tenets. In practice, there is a "federal" conservatism that applies in Washington circles, there are regional and state forms of conservatism, and there are ever-more local forms of conservatism that go right down to the unit of individual liberty. What is currently masquerading as "national" conservatism – and is being pressed hard on Christie by the conservative journalistic elite – is a regional form of applied conservatism that is largely southern but more accurately just rural. The profile of states that espouse such "heartland" conservatism actually matches up rather well with the tea party's demographic and ideological profile – libertarian in rhetoric, but federally subsidized in practice. (In the tea party's case, the subsidies include largely unchallenged Social Security and Medicare benefits.)

New Jersey's conditions do not fit the demands of this ascendant regional conservatism, which helps to explain why the tea party is not popular in NJ. It also unfortunately helps to explain why National Review's editors feel the need to call NJ conservatives and Republicans "self-described." The rural-regionalist attitude has spread deeply and insidiously. Many of those seeking to rebuild the conservative and Republican brands would do well instead to consider tailoring conservative programs and messages to specific districts, rather than just finding candidates who can hew competently to the predominant, "heartland" program. A more inclusive approach means fostering state-level (and indeed district-level) groups who can sensibly develop platforms – both ideological and electoral – for top-quality candidates. It means having a dozen different types of conservatism bloom and compete. Such activity is what happens under the big-top tent that Reagan envisioned, whereas hyper-purist "conservative" types (found most notably these days at CPAC and in much of the modern tea party movement) have been running an ever-shabbier electoral sideshow.

What would a broader, more tolerant form of the "national" conservative movement look like? First and foremost, it would explicitly take account of local conditions (e.g. population density, cost of living, tax-benefit ratios) and the effects of these conditions on crafting and implementing conservative policies. It would recognize that even conservative politicians and states compete with each other, and would not require some (like Christie and NJ) to take a permanently supporting role in the name of solidarity. It would be linked to a myriad of mutually supporting national, regional, state and local policy shops that would identify and hone candidates who (like Christie) could work successfully in unfavorable and even hostile environments. Such conservative hyper-diversification would have the further salutary effect of promoting tolerance at the higher levels of conservative opinion-makers, even as it inspired debate.

At a minimum, conservative diversification would prevent local or regional preferences – such as on gun policy and tax-benefit ratios – from being presented and pushed as a "national" conservative consensus. It would be obvious to all conservatives that they hail from, and answer to, a hugely diverse set of populations, so that polite debate and persuasion – rather than shaming campaigns and CPAC snubs – would be seen as the best course for progress. Such an outcome is devoutly to be wished, as it would renew and foster the vast and fruitful internal debate that has made conservatism an intellectual wonder among political movements. Hopefully, the hits Christie has recently sustained, and manfully shrugged off, will help to jar the national conservative movement back onto such fruitful paths.