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An ongoing discussion about conservatism in New Jersey.
Lonegan, Christie and New Jersey conservatism
Peter C. Hansen  (October 19, 2013, 2:05 am)

Analysts on the Right have been divided about the recent Booker-Lonegan by-election, with most finding some evidence of a conservative-led Republican resurgence in the Garden State. One partial dissenter is Matthew Kaminiski of the Wall Street Journal, who has opined that Lonegan's Tea Party loyalties limited his appeal:

Some Republicans were left to wonder about Mr. Lonegan’s real intentions, too. He said he wanted to stay true to his beliefs, but his uncompromising conservative pitch sounded better suited to Utah or Texas. Headlining his closing rally last weekend was Sarah Palin, a divisive and unpopular figure in New Jersey. Gov. Chris Christie, who’s cruising to an easy re-election next month, shows Republicans can win the Garden State. Just not the way Mr. Lonegan tried to do.

There is some truth in each view. Yes, conservative fervor did run up Lonegan's share of the vote, especially in a low-turnout election. Yes, the election no doubt reveals some popular weariness with the Democratic agenda and President Obama's governance style. Yes, Lonegan made an aggressive and largely effective appeal against a Democratic media star whose record and character he seriously put into question. In the end, however, Lonegan's policies and allegiances just didn't gibe with a majority of the NJ voting public. This is likely because Lonegan's Tea Party affiliation put a ceiling on his appeal to NJ voters, especially during the federal shutdown triggered and then prolonged by his fellow Tea Party adherents in Congress.

The modern Tea Party's politics of panic was on full display during the melodramatic and patently foredoomed effort to defund Obamacare that coincided with the Booker-Lonegan by-election. The push to defund seemed like a re-enactment of the "really futile and stupid gesture" scene from Animal House, with Senator Cruz as Bluto and the House defund caucus as Otter. The Intransigents' announcements of eschatological crisis, obtusely maximalist demands, and denouncements of "appeasers" were all frankly bizarre. Worse, the entire effort made no strategic sense whatever vis-à-vis its proclaimed target, Obamacare. At most, the entire shutdown gambit seems to have been nothing more than a cynical and reckless power play for dominance within the Republican Party, conducted before a disgusted national majority.

When Lonegan appeared with Tea Party avatars Sarah Palin and Mark Levin in this context, he presented himself not merely as the opponent of Democrat Cory Booker, but also as an opponent of the Republican Establishment in Washington. Such a niche marketing strategy is a loser in a deep-blue state like NJ. The statewide number of Republican-leaners is already limited, and those folks want to back a winner if they are going to take the trouble of voting in a heavily Democratic state. Marketing oneself as an insurgent against your own side's leaders raises voter worries about electability, and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even apart from such crowd psychology, the espousal of uncompromising, hardcore views is likely to turn off most of the Garden State's many moderate or committed-but-pragmatic conservatives, particularly among the traditionalist gentry.

In NJ, apocalyptic language and efforts just don't play. Apart from the lack of any firebrand cultural tradition, the Garden State is basically a vast suburb moving to its own deep rhythms. Such settled complexity, layered decade after decade, causes people to feel that life will not change quickly or much. No matter what wacko policies are dreamt up by idiot politicians, life will go on much as before – traffic will still be bad, strip malls will gradually change over, people will still mow their lawns, kids will grow up, and so on. New Jerseyans' blasé attitude toward government is also explained by the fact that most people ascribe to the state government qualities normally attributed to the mafia – corrupt, self-serving, abusive, useless, creepily insular and operating so behind-the-scenes as to be nearly invisible.

After more than a century of enduring such abuse, New Jerseyans do not see new government programs as existential threats, but simply as more expensive foolishness. So long as it occurs off-screen, it tends to be overlooked and tolerated. It is only when the burdens of such programs start to impact on daily existence – for example by getting an insurance policy cancelled or taking money budgeted for a vacation – that New Jerseyans will rise up to throw the bums out. That is how Christie became governor, by defeating public-union supporter Corzine just as Whitman ousted the tax-hiking Florio in 1993.

Whereas Lonegan the Tea Partier lost his election by a substantial margin, Christie is now (per NJ.com) polling higher in his re-election bid than a Democratic opponent who is neither scandal-plagued nor otherwise unelectable. Christie leads among men, women, whites and Hispanics, and has won the support of one-third of blacks statewide. This is not because Christie has called a truce on social issues, or adopted a progressive agenda. To the contrary, Christie is known to oppose "gay marriage, abortion rights and tying future minimum wage increases to inflation — all issues that earlier polls show the majority of the state's voters support." Nevertheless, at a 62-to-28 rate, the inhabitants of deep-blue New Jersey "say that Christie’s views on issues are generally in line with most New Jerseyans," while at a 40-to-34 rate, the same people in a heavily Democratic state say that the Democratic candidate's views are "out of step" with those of "most Garden State residents."

How can this possibly be? Both Lonegan and Christie hold roughly the same ideological positions, yet Lonegan is unelectable while Christie is trouncing a Democrat in a dark-blue state. Since ideological differences cannot explain such a vast gap in political acceptability, other factors must be at work. Among them, personal likeability and flamboyance no doubt play a role. The most important factor by far is, however, Christie's extraordinary focus on local conditions and local culture, whereas Lonegan imprudently nationalized his candidacy.

In September 2010, nine months into Christie's administration, I wrote that the "voicebox of New Jersey's soul" had "done merely the obvious and sensible thing. Not just for this election cycle, but in any cycle." He "show[ed] he is the pocketbook voter's friend, and [took] on the reactionary public-sector unions that NJ loathes." As Steve Malanga of the Wall Street Journal observed, Christie achieved his signature victory over the public unions by "secur[ing] labor support, especially among construction and trade unions, by emphasizing restraints on government spending, caps on tax increases, incentives for job creation, and vigorous rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy." Even the State Senate President, Democrat Stephen Sweeney – an official of the International Association of Ironworkers – "has helped Mr. Christie cut pension benefits for state workers and require greater retirement contributions."

Christie succeeded by channeling the anger and resentment of the Garden State's voters into targeted conservative assaults on the actual object of that anger and resentment. Whereas many politicians attempt to bottle their power by perpetuating conflicts, Christie actually set about ruthlessly and cunningly to win the war that the public wanted. In a state where thick skin and determination are prized, and political sincerity is a rarity, New Jerseyans marveled at Christie's determined march to victory. With his Jersey accent, self-deprecation and delightfully abrasive Garden State manner, Christie gained immense credibility by consciously presenting himself as the "avatar of the NJ ethos[,] channeling the householders one hears talking in dentist offices, diners and supermarkets across the state."

By making himself the NJ Everyman, Christie has been able to embed his conservative agenda into NJ life. This has in turn allowed him to quietly apply (insofar as possible) conservative policies that would otherwise be deal-breakers for many voters, such as opposition to abortion and gay marriage. By contrast, Lonegan gained little traction by portraying himself as part of a national movement through his self-identification with the Intransigents during the shutdown, and through his appeals to out-of-state Tea Party celebrities. It is not merely that Lonegan sided with a polarizing and generally unpopular group. Lonegan also failed because he indicated that he was interested more in national affairs than in NJ's own deeply held concerns and yearnings. For a state that long lived in the shadow of New York and Philadelphia, and that is all too often misunderstood and dismissed in national discourse, such subtle disrespect can be the kiss of death.

It remains to be seen whether Christie's appeal will translate onto the national plane. Many vociferous conservatives have dismissed him as a RINO, but this is largely because they wish to impose their regional (and southern-inflected) brand of conservatism as the national model. Their attitude, like their dismissals, is parochial and off-putting. It would instead behoove conservatives nationwide to give Christie a serious look. It is not that the NJ style of conservative governance is readily translatable to other states and regions. After all, New Jersey is not Alabama. What makes Christie a valuable contributor to the conservative discussion is that he has been able to inculcate conservative values and approaches deep into the political culture of a traditionally Democratic state. He did this not by haranguing or unilateral imposition, but instead by drawing out conservative elements of NJ culture and tradition.

Doing this required not just political shrewdness, but also a native understanding of local conditions and history. If conservatism is to win back other long-lost territories across the country, a network of figures like Christie will be needed to translate conservatism into local dialects. It is ironically through such localism and pluralism – approaches long celebrated by American conservatives – that a truly national conservative movement will emerge.