The NJ Consequences of a Biden Meltdown in Iowa

Biden button.

Establishment Democrats – especially in North Jersey – will sweat out tonight’s Iowa caucuses, already bemoaning the results before they flood from the cornfields, cursing the implications of an ongoing mangled contest; or, God forbid by their reckoning, painfully ingesting the psychedelic angst of a Bernie Sanders win. Cory Booker’s presidential candidacy was supposed to keep the lid on Pandora’s Box, a political safeguard that failed when New Jersey’s junior senator sputtered, ran out of money, and crawled back to New Jersey to protect his senate seat. Now, the forces aligned with Governor Phil Murphy are prepared to make what they believe is the safe, Obama Administration-ratified choice by backing former Vice President Joe Biden as their party’s best choice to line up against President Donald J. Trump.

But Biden’s been shaky from the start of his prez candidacy, hardly projecting he-man-like campaign capacities, getting buffeted from the leftward reaches of his party, lampooned by the GOP as an impeachment waiting to happen, losing ground where he’s supposed to be strong (ie South Carolina), and notwithstanding scattered post-Booker support in the Garden State (former Governor Dick Codey, U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, Jr., Senator Ronald L. Rice, U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski), failing to engender a deep and meaningful show of pre-Iowa love from the Garden State, in other words Booker’s unlocked fundraising arm. It’s been rough enough, to say the least, to keep New Jersey mostly uncommitted and on the sidelines.

If Biden has a less than impressive showing in the Hawkeye State (more exactly what that looks like in a moment), New Jersey’s party establishment (the fractured creature that it is) will feel some pressure to pivot, presumably to billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who already has one strong North Jersey ally loosely affiliated with Team Murphy. Even though Murphy hasn’t backed anyone, the fact that Codey jumped out and went with Biden might (if they move more swiftly than the governor) give South Jersey some room to chest-thump amid the ongoing concatenations between Murphy and GN3. Michael Muller, the South’s most celebrated political director, serves as New Jersey’s political director for Bloomberg, and has enlisted the aid of the Northern-based Ray Ferraioli, who possesses strong ties to the Essex County Democratic political establishment. If Murphy and company drag over to Bloomberg, they will be made to feel the pains of having to get in line if Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) and his forces press go on Bloomy before the guv. It could be mildly annoying for Murphy, and thorny in a few somewhat significant ways.

In his continuing war with Sweeney and the South, Murphy leaned heavily on those progressive emblems now aligned with the Bernie movement, including the governor’s old stand-by, Analilia Mejia, formerly the head of NJ Working Families, now national political director for Bernie Sanders; and People’s Organization for Progress (POP) Founder Larry Hamm. A too-fast lunge for Bloomberg in an attempt to get in front of the south will give the appearance of a millionaire-at-heart seeking the security blanket company of fellow Collie-at-his-feet Bloomberg. Then again, if Biden sputters helplessly tonight and the South pushes the button on Bloom, Murphy could be shown to be standing in no man’s land; for as much as he has depended on the tambourines and tom toms of the left during budget war time, he doesn’t want to get trapped with Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in a state where he’s already running around proclaiming the power of the quad in his corner – and where Booker is running statewide. The quad, it should be noted, is an alignment of crusty old political machines in Hudson, Bergen, Passaic and Essex. If Murphy runs with Sanders or Warren, he runs the risk of championing libs with their noses against the window panes of those structures who are eager for a Democratic Primary in June to take on the powers that be; who are lusting after a moment to take out incumbents. He also can’t go to Sanders without empowering Hamm, who is running in the Democratic Primary against Booker with the express purpose of empowering Sanders in New Jersey.

But wait a minute, leaving aside the Hamm-Booker problem for a moment (which is a big problem, incidentally) – isn’t that the perfect opportunity for Murphy to let the progressive wave purge some of his enemies?

No.

The wrong people would get either taken out or damaged in the process.

Starting, conceivably, with Booker.

At heart, Murphy is a revolutionary on Tuesdays and Thursdays; but has to also depend on the machines to fill up the town halls and tap rooms on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; and must fulfill a weekend social schedule heavy on one-percent connective tissue.

Much of his staff, or critical pieces of staff, derive from Booker.

He can’t back Sanders without jeopardizing that very portion of the New Jersey political establishment most welded to his own interests.

What about Warren?

New Jersey Working Families – the national arm – backs her. And again, Murphy depends heavily on their work in New Jersey.

It’s a non-starter.

Again, it means risking political capital with little upside, and the potential catastrophic downside of challenges emerging to people Murphy would rather not bother ahead of his own reelection campaign.

In the event of an awful showing by Biden, the governor will feel some ear biting to get to Bloomberg for the same reason New Jersey went with Murphy in 2017: self interest, and protecting the vineyard from unnecessary drama and from the possibility of establishment players being bothered by progressives they’ve attempted to keep plugged up for years on their respective parochial turfs.

If Booker fulfilled the useful function of aligning New Jersey in an non-headache-causing cause, in a fight that would not risk the exacerbation of existing wounds, Bloomberg – richer than God, in his case, a very useful factor here as it was (on a more modest scale) when Murphy sought the nomination, and  basically undemanding – could fulfill much the same function, as Murphy and Sweeney preserve the mutually assured antiguerilla warfare priority of the now statewide-seeking Booker.

It would all be a little easier – for the moment anyway – if Biden won

But Bloomberg, according to sources, albeit not without his own encumbrances (stop and frisk, the appearance of another guy buying the office, the appearance of the party establishment stifling progressives) would reappear to represent the next easiest option.

South and North will be watching each other. There will be arguments put to the the governor that doing nothing could prove costly. Politics, after all, is picking sides.

But if the south feels perhaps a little more pressure to go with Bloomberg on the strength of the money factor (Norcross’s fortune must be somewhat pointed at the courtroom; he’s hired a crack legal team to protect him as the U.S. Attorney’s Office and state Attorney General examine his role in a tax incentive scandal), Muller’s already there as a gatekeeper. There’s no real rush.

And though a Biden demise (and he would have to flame out totally tonight to die politically; there’s still the minority-grounded primaries of Nevada and South Carolina to get through before NJ completely tags and bags him; he’s got a wide berth in this organization-dominant state. “I think he can come in second and be ok. Third’s an obvious problem. Biden’s biggest issue is his numbers are slipping in South Carolina,” said a party source.) stings (they like him here) there’s no immediate rush for Murphy, not as long as he has the endorsement of Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman LeRoy Jones. That backing (along with Bergen, Passaic and Hudson) protects Murphy from the worst furies of the south in a 2021 Democratic Primary. It takes the pressure off from having to get it immediately right, or having to worry about a Bloomberg -South Jersey endzone dance.  Yes, politics is about picking sides. But if the last person he likes to be compared to is Jon Corzine, he can side-step the association again by not bolting himself to someone and at least somewhat minimize the odds of picking wrong. Corzine went with Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in 2008 and, deprived of a snug landing spot at treasury in the Obama Administration, ended up having to trudge back to face an oncoming locomotive named Chris Christie in 2009. The South is weak politically right now; weak enough to give Sweeney pause too before he sticks his neck out for Bloomberg. Moreover, neither Jack Ciattarelli nor any other potential 2021 Republican challenger to Murphy projects the fearsome candidacy that then-U.S. Attorney Christie did in the lead up to 2009.

If Biden goes down, Bloomberg looks like the next stop for both pieces of the establishment here (unless, of course, Amy Klobuchar breaks out), but they have a little room to move, a little room to wait (Murphy in his case enjoying the freedom and flexibility created by that Essex endorsement) until after Super Tuesday, to see how not just Biden, but also a fully-activated (or similarly dysfunctional fellow 78-year old) Bloomberg, perform.

 

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  • Lisa McCormick

    Actually, Murphy is never a revolutionary or a progressive. He is not one of us

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