It was sixty years ago, at the tender age of ten, that I read my first full length political book: Profiles in Courage, by John F. Kennedy, then the Democratic presidential nominee. He defined the word courage not as unwillingness to compromise on policy, but rather as adherence to principle, even when it could cost one his office and power.
In modern New Jersey political history, there have been two notable profiles in courage. The first was former Governor Jim Florio, who sacrificed his gubernatorial reelection due to his adherence to principle on his enacted ban on semi-automatic firearms. The second is our current governor, Phil Murphy, who has adhered to principle in protecting the public during the Coronavirus pandemic by his closure of businesses and public activities and refraining from a premature reopening.
In today’s New Jersey Republican Party, courage is a forgotten quality. There is a mob psychology where office holders, political players, and candidates at all levels are afraid to repudiate a vile, racist, misogynist, corrupt, and deplorably incompetent president, Donald Trump.
The NJGOP is the political equivalent of Jonestown, where Donald Trump is Jim Jones and all party activists at any level are his Kool-Aid drinkers. Basically, the top level of the party, including statewide candidates, legislators, party officials, and other influentials is, in a political sense, a cowardly collection of pusillanimous poltroons
It is painful for me to say this. I devoted my adult life to my service to the New Jersey Republican Party and will always be most proud of my past service as a policy advisor on an Assembly Republican staff, and as an upper-level executive in a Republican gubernatorial administration. As the Chair of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Republican Lew Eisenberg will always serve for me as a model of valiant leadership for his unwavering steadiness, perseverance, and dedication during the dark days following 9-11. I will always admire and be proud of my friendship with Republican Tom Kean, the greatest twentieth century governor of New Jersey.
At the national level, my Republicanism was grounded on the political principles and policies of one of the five greatest presidents in American history, Dwight David Eisenhower. Ike had the following landmark accomplishments: 1) ended the Korean War in 1953; 2) kept us out of involvement on behalf of the French in Vietnam in 1954; 3) enacted the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act in 1956, which made possible the Interstate Highways system and the growth of suburban America; 4) enforced with the National Guard the desegregation of the Little Rock, Arkansas schools in 1957; and 5) enacted in 1957 the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction.
Eisenhower was a man of unsurpassed goodness and greatness in war and peace, and a model of ethical behavior. He was one of the two greatest Americans of the Twentieth Century, the other being Jackie Roosevelt Robinson. Before I left the Republican Party, I was truly an anachronism that no longer exists: An Eisenhower Republican.
And there were two other Republican presidents who will always have an honored place in my life: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Like Eisenhower, Reagan was a president of goodness and greatness who won the Cold War and revived the American economy. His speech at Pointe du Hac, Normandy, France on June 6, 1984, the fortieth anniversary of D-Date, will always profoundly resonate with me, a nephew of a beloved uncle who fought at D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Finally, my service in the administration of George W. Bush will always be the pride of my career. His enactment of PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief saved millions of lives. It ranks as the most effective international public health measure in world history and near the top in effectiveness of all federal spending programs in American history, along with Medicare, Social Security, and the Marshall Plan. Most importantly, he was a profoundly decent man, without bigotry, sexism, or malice.
So when I stepped down as Region 2 EPA Administrator at the end of the Bush 43 Administration, I could not have envisioned that I would ever leave the Republican Party.
Along came Donald Trump, however, and in the words of Washington Post columnist Max Boot, he transformed the GOP into a White Nationalist party with a conservative fringe. This was not my party, and so I followed the example of my favorite polemicist, George Will, left the GOP, and embraced the status of a center-right independent.
As an independent, I want to see two competitive political parties that could offer me alternatives. The Republican Party can offer such an alternative only if it reinvents itself as a racially and gender inclusive party, but given the pathetic submissiveness to Trumpism on the part of key Republicans, the outlook for that is bleak. The continuation of Trumpism under the leadership of two reactionary authoritarian senators, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Josh Hawley of Missouri is the future order of the day.
Yet there is hope in the NJGOP for a reinvented Republican Party because of one individual of party prominence who has steadfastly rejected Donald Trump and refuses to endorse him. That Profile of Courage is Jon Bramnick, Assembly Republican Leader.
Before the 2019 legislative elections, Bramnick was threatened with defeat by Trumpist forces who vowed to run an independent ticket against him and his running mate in the 21st District, incumbent Assemblywoman Nancy Foster Munoz, unless they agreed to support the Trump reelection effort. Bramnick absolutely refused to do so, because of aspects of Trumpism that run counter to two of his core principles.
The first is Bramnick’s strict adherence to civility. Trump’s lack of civility is repulsive to him. Unlike other potential Republican gubernatorial candidates, Bramnick’s criticisms of Phil Murphy are always without rancor, vituperation, and demonization. For example, while he has criticized the process of executive orders by which Murphy has imposed the closures during the Pandemic, he has consistently offered to work with the governor to fashion solutions.
The other Bramnick principle has been the promotion of center-right Republicanism, a reflection of the people who Bramnick says inspired him to get into electoral politics, most notably, Tom Kean, former Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen, and both Bush 41 and Bush 43. The politics of Trumpism, reliant on conspiratorial theories like those of QAnon, which Trump refused to repudiate in his NBC Town Hall last night, and his slavish deference to White Nationalism are anathema to Jon Bramnick, who practices a Tom Kean brand of politics of inclusion.
So Bramnick boldly adhered to principle and would not submit to Trumpist political coercion. On Election Day 2019, Bramnick and Munoz prevailed in a decisive upset victory.
As a result of his demonstrated courage against the evils of Trumpism, Bramnick stands taller today in terms of political dignity than any of the other potential candidates for the 2021 NJGOP gubernatorial nomination. The other candidates obviously felt they had to endorse Trump’s reelection effort in order to be competitive in the 2021 Republican gubernatorial primary. Perhaps they were right. Their support of Trump, however, dooms them to a landslide defeat by Phil Murphy in the 2021 general election.
I don’t know whether Jon Bramnick will run for Governor in 2021. He certainly would be free of the Trump albatross, which would ruin all the other GOP candidates. That albatross is totally destructive in the African-American community of any GOP gubernatorial candidate who endorsed Trump. At least Bramnick never sold his soul to Trumpism. And he would run a more competitive race against Phil Murphy.
Murphy has been the most successful governor of New Jersey since Tom Kean. I plan to endorse him for reelection because of his principled Coronavirus pandemic management, his excellent record on environmental justice, and his courage in taking on the political boss of South Jersey, George Norcross. He will be reelected against any candidate, albeit by a smaller margin against Bramnick.
There is no question, however, that the NJGOP should look to Jon Bramnick to provide future responsible center-right leadership, regardless of whether he ever runs for governor. It is abundantly clear that if the NJGOP is to have any competitive future, it must rid itself of the cancer of Trumpism. In terms of his own future, Jon Bramnick has done that. And his record of anti-Trumpist courage should serve as a model for young aspiring Republican candidates and public officials in New Jersey to emulate.
Alan 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.