When I think of all the promises Phil Murphy made during his gubernatorial campaign, I am reminded of a famous statement made by the most eloquent former Senate Republican Leader from Illinois, Everett Dirksen.
During the session of the 89th Congress (1965-1966), approximately seventy percent of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” legislation was enacted. These new laws implemented massive changes in both the economic and social fabric and infrastructure of America, including Medicare, Medicaid, and the Civil Rights Act of 1965, which at long last guaranteed the right to vote to all Americans, tearing down the Jim Crow barriers that had disenfranchised Southern African-Americans since Reconstruction.
The escalation of the Vietnam War resulted in an unanticipated reduction in spending on many Great Society programs, but the bulk of them remained substantially funded. In assessing LBJ’s legislative agenda, Dirksen said, “This isn’t the Great Society – it’s heaven!”
During the 2017 New Jersey gubernatorial campaign, Phil Murphy promised his own version of a Great Society for New Jersey: Fully funded education and pensions, free community college, enhanced state funded family planning services, and reduced property taxes. This was Murphy’s version of heaven on earth.
In a real sense, Murphy was politically foolish for making these promises. Given the overwhelming unpopularity of Chris Christie, there was no way Democrat Murphy could lose the election to the Republican candidate Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno. Even Jim Florio in 1989 avoided overpromising in a gubernatorial election he was certain to win.
Phil Murphy, however, with the possible exception of Jon Corzine, is the least politically skilled governor in modern New Jersey political history. He has a thorough knowledge of the politics of Wall Street but a woeful lack of understanding of the politics of Main Street New Jersey. To put it mildly, comparing Phil Murphy’s political skills with those of LBJ is like comparing the boxing skills of the pathetic Lion of Flanders, Jean-Pierre Coopman, with those of Muhammad Ali.
Murphy fundamentally failed to understand that his New Jersey of 2018 is as different from LBJ’s America of 1964 as night and day. In 1964, America thirsted for bigger government and was willing to pay the cost for it, including a payroll tax to finance Medicare. In 2018, New Jerseyans seek smaller and smarter government, and they understand the huge economic cost of Murphy’s proposed “millionaire’s tax,” which he intended to pay for his pie-in-the-sky campaign promises. And Senators of his own party are most reluctant to risk the social consequences of the legalization of marijuana, as opposed to its decriminalization.
There also is the hangover of Murphy’s romance with the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA). He foolishly failed to make any effort to get them to call off their hopeless war against State Senate President Steve Sweeney, who, unlike Murphy, is highly politically skilled. In the aftermath of that war, Sweeney owes Murphy nothing.
He certainly will not approve any millionaire’s tax on a scale desired by Murphy in order to deliver what Murphy promised the NJEA. Murphy’s romance was, in political terms, even more expensive than Eddie Fisher’s romance with Elizabeth Taylor in 1958-1959, and neither Steve Sweeney nor New Jersey taxpayers in general are willing to pick up the tab for the date.
In fact, given Murphy’s likely inability to deliver the goodies he promised, Steve Sweeney has an opportunity to wrest from Murphy the role of Chief Policymaker. It is abundantly clear that for Phil Murphy, heaven must wait.
Murphy may not see it this way. Newly inaugurated governors tend to have a sense of hubris, thinking they can reinvent the wheel. In Murphy’s first state budget, due for presentation on March 13, he may well proceed fully with a maximal introduction of the millionaire’s tax plus revenue projections based on legalized marijuana sales.
Still, at all times prior to the June budget vote, Murphy will retain an attractive option of recalibration of his first year message. This recalibrated message would have two components:
1) Passage of measures that do not have a major impact on the state budget, most noteworthy an increase in the state minimum wage and enhanced gun control laws.
2) Bipartisan formulation of long-term solutions to the two major fiscal dilemmas facing the state, namely pensions and infrastructure, including New Jersey Transit, with solutions on both issues to be introduced for legislative enactment in 2019.
The notion of introduction of major long terms solutions on pensions and infrastructure in 2019 runs counter to the Trenton conventional wisdom of not introducing potentially controversial major measures during a legislative election year. This should in no way phase Phil Murphy, however. In 2019, the Republican Party brand nationwide will be undergoing massive destruction, as the newly elected Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives (aided by the Democratic victories in New Jersey of Mikie Sherrill and Jeff Van Drew this November) considers the impeachment of President Donald Trump. Plus, the current state legislative map is basically an incumbent protection plan, further negating the possibility of major GOP Assembly gains in 2019. So Phil Murphy can safely wait until 2019 on major pension and infrastructure long range funding measures.
In recalibrating his message, Phil Murphy brings two major assets to the table.
First, in Pete Cammarano, Phil Murphy has the most talented Chief of Staff among Democratic governors over the past half century. Cammarano has encyclopedic issue knowledge, supreme communication instincts, and all the political skills Murphy lacks.
Second, Murphy has a first rate creative financial mind, honed by his Wall Street experience. This should be a major asset in formulating long term fiscal solutions to the infrastructure and pension problems. Cammarano will know how to refine these solutions to make them politically palatable.
So for Phil Murphy, recalibration of his message will be the key to a successful first year – and first term as well.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.