Election 2021: Indifference, Insider and Voter Passions, Party Dysfunctions, and the Race for Governor

Sanders backs Governor Murphy.

The barkeep slopped a beer down in front of the reporter and stared back vacantly at the question about his choice for governor.

Governor.

Was that like the regulator that governed the beer taps?

He didn’t say it but his face said as much.

“Zach Wilson’s hurt,” the barkeep said finally, as though it were the only logical response.

Then he added belligerently, “Ask me if I care.”

The reporter obliged, triggering a profanity-laced tirade about the New York Jets organization and its penchant for ruining young quarterbacks. The barkeep finally schlepped off to another customer, leaving the reporter – in gloomy dislocation – to mull over the political condition of the State of New Jersey.

Ben Franklin called it a barrel tapped at both ends.

Maybe that was why the barkeep had initially given him that look.

The guy was thinking of Franklin.

The reporter tried to connect the cavernous subterranean tavern with the fast-unfolding governor’s contest pitting incumbent Democrat Phil Murphy against Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli. It was a little hard to concentrate. A laugh erupted from the other end of the bar as a sports image flashed onscreen. As patrons watched, he replayed in is mind those interactions with insiders from the previous hours as the game clock on the election cycle ticked down toward Tuesday night.

He thought of the Democrats.

Trump
Trump.

The election cycle lacked Donald Trump. They had no boogie man to run against, and a base conditioned to hate the former GOP President now foundered apathetically when faced with protecting and advancing incumbent Governor Murphy. That was one theory. Another was that a culture of epicurean appetites, selfies and solipsism had supplanted the conventional world of politics and elections, stages and spotlights. In other words, the egos of the many had replaced the egos of the few. Indeed, drearily, as the race neared its end, another Democratic Party politician of national scale trudged New Jersey in an effort to galvanize the downbeat party on behalf of Murphy. The stars from the past failed to generate a massive show of affection and attention. Former President Barack Obama went to Newark, and the event produced a collective yawn. The supposed stars of the present faired worse. An event with U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn was said to have radiated all the animation of a tomb. The would-be Jumbo-tron imagery clashed horrendously too with the fact that President Joe Biden couldn’t get his agenda in gear in Washington, D.C.

Oh, yeah.

Gottheimer and Biden.
Gottheimer and Biden.

 

The President himself had come to New Jersey eight days ahead of the election, to make his case for Democrats, who, in the inimitable parlance of the present day, “get s-t done.”

Actually, that’s not how it went.

Far from it.

That had been the plan, anyway.

Get the one big bill passed and then have the President come in here and stand triumphantly at the side

Gottheimer
Gottheimer

of Murphy. That was how it would get done. Good government equals good politics and good politics equals good government. But one bill became two bills – at the prodding, in fact, of one of Biden’s supposed blue state allies, U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-5); and then two bills became no bills; and then two bills subjected to the roil of progressives versus moderates, became a Biden agenda imperiled. If right-wing imbeciles wearing minotaur headdresses and waving Confederate flags desecrated the U.S. Capitol and what it stands for, Democrats looked unable to wield their power in those same fragile hallways. Biden stood on a shovel here in New Jersey, to initiate a project not yet paid for, and people saw it for what it was: desperation as a supposed antidote to desecration.

Ciattarelli played it to the hilt. “Joe Biden isn’t getting the job done in Washington,” he said in a circulating YouTube ad, the solemnity of his tone failing to disguise his glee, with a week remaining and his designs of fusing federal failure to Murphy playing right into his hands as the Governor welcomed Biden back to New Jersey.

Democrats around Murphy knew the score.

The government narrative – another favorite non-word useful to a bifurcated media establishment content to accept reportable versions of events as opposed to the events themselves, and social media static as opposed to deeds – offered a nothing-to-see-here nonstory for the party. They couldn’t get Biden’s spending package done, even without the interference of Trump and his cronies, so the Murphy Campaign – mildly succumbing to the panic button, or just running with Plan B in an era of siloed information – went with unloaded packing crates of raw chunks of red meat, in the form of socialist Bernie Sanders. In most any other past environment a primary player, Sanders played the role of modified rock star for Murphy, with all the arguments expended and the prospect of a moribund electorate still appearing to slumber through its democratic obligations and the beast already slain in 2020.

Just – dammit – galvanize somebody even if it angers somebody else. Emotion is better than indifference, right? Didn’t Elie Wiesel say that, or something like it (“The opposite of love is not hatred, it’s indifference.”), someone in a more literate era might have offered in the cocoon of the campaign, as justification for plopping Bernie into the 11th hour of the governor’s contest.

It depended on whom one asked.

Essentially, the campaign move somewhat reanimated all those old fractures within the New Jersey Democratic Party.

Sweeney approaches the stage for Tuesday's keynote address.
Sweeney.

 

The State Sweeney Building Trades moderate wing of the party, schooled for years in incrementally taking over Republican territory and winning battleground elections and perpetually bothered by Murphy’s neophyte progressivism, emitted a collective groan of irritation. One source fretted over his battleground legislative incumbents. Bernie would remind voters about the radical dangers of the Democratic Party, turn off independent voters critical to victory, and probably fry some of Sweeney’s and speaker Craig Coughlin’s (D-19) allies. “Those guys,” the source raged, apparently apoplectic over the supposed selfishness of the Murphy minions not caring of Bernie pruned some low hanging Democrats in legislative battlegrounds.

No, argued another source. People had already made up their minds. Ciattarelli had thrown his arms around Trump voters, and paid his own price for it, and Murphy needed to role the dice with his own base, not run from it, especially if a low voter turnout election gave the always Trump-flirting Ciattarelli an opportunity to claw his way into contention.

They needed excitement.

Give it to them.

Just, for God’s sake, give it to them.

So progressive Senator Bernie Sanders materialized at the side of his New Jersey party ally at Rutgers, to animate students who want free college and – they argued – something, at least, for the taxes they and their parents paid, besides merely ever accentuating the gluttony of corporate America.

As for who it hurt in the establishment of their own party, Murphy and company couldn’t care too much.

Could they?

They knew what was going on.

They knew the south Jersey Democratic Party Powerbroker Norcross-Sweeney establishment didn’t want Murphy to overperform and look like a hero. Did those guys really want the front office to produce a double digit win? They had to work with the front office. They couldn’t stand the thought of them being incompetent – their word of choice – and even more arrogant. They wanted Murphy to feel uncomfortable and even maybe a little desperate and win by six points – ideally fewer – and finish off an assembly slate or two in the process, in the interest of justifying more dysfunctional government in Trenton on the other side of the election. If Murphy shaved a few legislators on Nov. 2nd, Sweeney would find it easier to summon a rallying cry in the caucus to torture Murphy – “Let’s do this for Dawn” – as opposed to having to eat an insufferable Bernie Sanders-aided double digit Murphy win.

Remember, short of COVID intervening, and short of scrambling to make peace with South Jersey after

Addiego
Addiego.

a scorched earth honeymoon phase with his own party, Murphy would have received a primary challenge. Norcross said as much. and Murphy knew that. Finally, if the socialist’s presence contributed to the political demise of an already compromised Senator Dawn Addiego in LD8, it wouldn’t penetrate anywhere else, in probably the best outcome for Sweeney and Murphy. Murphy wins, and maybe even by “two touchdowns,” as he bragged in 2017 after running on a progressive platform, and helps deprive the senate president of a South Jersey ally, thereby creating movement to make someone from Middlesex the senate president in the near future. Murphy’s top-of-the-ticket progressive agenda was supposed to have ruined the suburban career of Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-16). It didn’t. In fact, state Senator Kip Bateman (R-16) almost lost that same year, to an unknown, has since announced his retirement, and Zwicker – giving no visible signs of panic – appears strongly positioned to win the senate seat against fragmented GOP opposition.

“The Murphy Campaign has done almost nothing in the suburbs,” a source told the reporter. “It’s an urban campaign. Essex. Hudson. That’s it. Some late progressives, for fun. So the Bernie stuff doesn’t impact the battlegrounds too much because it’s very strategically pinpointed.”

This was an ally of Sweeney’s talking.

Democrats would do what they do.

They would go back to fighting on the other side of Murphy winning reelection, whether by six or eight or ten points, but for now they had the benefits of raw registered numbers in their favor, private and public sector unions dedicated to the same cause (they were not in 2017; nor were they in 2013), most polled voters favoring Murphy’s response to the pandemic, shifted demographics in Central Jersey that made progressive politics not only less scary but advisable, and Trump overhang from 2020. The Washington, D.C. situation threatened battleground incumbents in next year’s midterms, but Murphy – who had some accomplishments (marijuana legalization, a path to a $15 minimum wage, and the millionaire’s tax) to run on in addition to merely having the human prop of Bernie Sanders – had sufficient insulation from that in the form of his own record.

Ciattarelli
Ciattarelli.

 

As for Ciattarelli, he did his level best to stand convincingly at the head of an utterly ravaged party.

The Democrats’ dysfunctional antics entertained, and gave the Republican nominee a grown-up-in-the-room-sounding talking point – and a pre-Election Day prayer in the form of a political narrative.

But reality dictated otherwise.

State senators Bateman, Tom Kean, Jr., and Chris Brown all retired rather than face reelection this year, two of them battleground occupants who might not have won. The Ciattarelli camp had his own internal irritations with Doug Steinhardt, the former state party chairman and full-blown Donald Trump backer, who jumped into a GOP Primary long enough to nudge Ciattarelli dangerously rightward, only to drop out of the contest. Ciattarelli also had longstanding unburied antagonisms former Governor Chris Christie and their cronies, who insisted on trying to be relevant as their boss, who limped out of office here with a 16% approval rating, try to angle him again for national office. If moderates and progressives rend the Democrats, moderates and Trumpers eviscerate the GOP. If those ego-driven, mean-spirited internal fights of the Democrats in New Jersey created the most painful insider collisions, Republicans suffered the same condition within their own ranks, barely in an upright position after the back-to-back demolition jobs of Christie and Trump.

On the outside of those chalked circles, real and regular people found themselves exhausted, the rages and inactions of the few feeding the indifference and political disengagement of the many, with only those extremist poles capable of animation, to quote W.B. Yeats, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity,” or so it seemed, with Ciattarelli legitimately armed with a property tax argument in a government-corroded state and yet chained to an extremity, while Murphy, through the blizzard of demagoguery on all sides, and, yes, subordinate to the left in his own party, but moderated by legislative power that would not allow him to go too far, held one decided advantage, as did Christie after Hurricane Sandy: leadership in a deadly crisis. Yes, indifference abided, but in this very specific case so too did a sense of reassurance that a mask-less, pandemic-denier wasn’t in charge, or at the very least didn’t exert undo influence from within a battering ram-wielding mob doubling back on the U.S. Capitol.

The barkeep schlepped back down the length of bar and, filling another mug, returned, as he lingered in the general din of profanity and complacency, to the pressing and passionate subject of the ruination of Jets quarterback Zach Wilson.

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