Phil Murphy, Everett Dirksen, The Progressive Conundrum, Marijuana Legalization – and Democratic Gubernatorial Primary, 2021

For political pundits, there has always been an incomprehensible aspect regarding Phil Murphy’s campaign for New Jersey governor in 2017.  Specifically, it is difficult for them to understand why, in a campaign he could not lose, Phil Murphy made promises he had no need to make, and no capacity to fulfill.    

One of these promises, namely marijuana legalization, now poses a major problem for Governor Murphy’s future gubernatorial effectiveness.  Specifically, if Murphy fails to obtain legislative passage of marijuana legalization this week, he may well be reduced to the status of a political eunuch, except for his power to appoint individuals to positions in the executive and judicial branches of New Jersey government. 

I had previously disparaged the possibility of a Democratic primary against Murphy in 2021.  If Murphy is transformed into the status of a political eunuch, however, it is a virtual certainty that state Senate President Steve Sweeney will seek the Democratic nomination for governor in 2021 – regardless of whether Murphy seeks reelection. 

To understand the course of the political ineptitude demonstrated by Murphy over the past two years, one must go back to the outset of the gubernatorial general election campaign in June, 2017. 

The Republican candidate, the then incumbent Lieutenant-Governor Kim Guadagno was a solid nominee.  She had a good record of public service, both as sheriff of Monmouth County and as Lieutenant-Governor.  Her communication skills and issue erudition were first rate, as she demonstrated conclusively by trouncing Murphy in both televised debates. 

None of this mattered, however.  Kim Guadagno was carrying the double albatross of two Republican public officials loathed by the New Jersey electorate, the then incumbent Governor Chris Christie and President Donald Trump.  Unless Phil Murphy had a personal scandal involving moral turpitude, there was no way Kim Guadagno could defeat him.   

Yet in a bizarre fashion, Phil Murphy engaged in two courses of action that now hamper his effectiveness as governor.  And this was foreseeable.

The first such course of action, unknown to most voters, is that Phil Murphy literally and deliberately changed his own public personality. 

In his book, The Partnership: The Making of Goldman Sachs, author Charles D. Ellis describes the Phil Murphy of his years at Goldman Sachs, as follows: 

…. he was superb at organizing and motivating the people of Goldman Sachs from within – and swore and drank like the unabashed Irishman he was.” 

Now this is a Phil Murphy who would have endeared himself greatly to New Jersey voters.  Such a personal bond with the electorate would have assisted Murphy in surviving the political bumps in the road that all governors face. 

Instead of appearing to be a person of “Main Street” values and behavior, Phil Murphy projected the personality of a Wall Street soulless patrician tycoon, unable to generate bonds of empathy with voters of all sectors of the electorate.  The only constituencies with any real loyalty to Murphy are the public employee and teachers’ unions, to whom Murphy seems intent on mortgaging the state’s financial future.

The second such politically foolhardy Murphy course of action was his promising unlimited State largesse to New Jersey voters, including free community college. 

Murphy comes from a financial background, and he had to know that such promises could never be kept, especially in view of his commitment to fund the deficit in the state employees and teachers’ pension funds.   And these largesse promises were unnecessary, in view of the certainty of his election victory. 

To me, however, the reason is clear as to why he made such promises.  Phil Murphy has been determined to prove to Progressive Democrats in both New Jersey and nationally that he is one of them. 

Murphy’s aspirations go way beyond the governorship of New Jersey.  I have no doubt that in a future Democratic presidential administration, he would aspire to a high-level position such as Secretary of the Treasury or President of the World Bank.  While the next president is highly likely to be a center-left Democrat, Murphy does not want Progressives, suspicious of his Wall Street background to attempt to block his nomination for such an office.   

So Phil Murphy will always pursue a Progressive Democratic agenda, with two components: 1) an economic component, consisting basically of confiscatory taxes on wealthier taxpayers and big spending government largesse to assist middle class families, as mentioned above; and 2) a cultural component, of which the main current feature is the legalization of marijuana.

Murphy’s attempted enactment of big spending programs in pursuit of his Utopian New Jersey is reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson’s pursuit of a “Great Society” through gargantuan increases in federal spending after his 1964 landslide victory over Barry Goldwater.  The unforgettable reaction of the then Senate Republican leader, Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois, was “This isn’t the Great Society -it’s heaven!” 

I will never forget Dirksen, one of my true historical heroes.  He had a wonderful sense of history and a voice like the late Broadway star Carol Channing.  His characterization of the idyllic LBJ vision of the Great Society as “heaven” was right on the money.  Unfortunately for Johnson, his heavenly vision was soon submerged by the hell of Vietnam. 

For Phil Murphy, due to economic reality, heaven will have to wait.  He will not be able get support from either party for expansion of the reach of his “millionaire’s taxes”, and thus he will not have the revenue for his 2017 campaign spending promises, especially in view of the exigency to close the aforementioned pension deficits. 

Thus, Phil Murphy now confronts the “Progressive Democrat Conundrum” encountered by Democrat governors who want to prove their Progressive Democratic credentials but are unable to enact a Progressive Democratic economic agenda.  These governors can only prove their Progressive Democratic bona fides by enacting a Progressive Democratic cultural agenda, the main feature of which is the legalization of marijuana. 

This is why marijuana legalization is such a high priority of Phil Murphy. This is the only way he can sustain his self-portrayal as a governor successful in enacting a Progressive Democratic agenda.  Murphy, however, to his great dismay, is learning that legalization of marijuana is likely to be a bridge too far for a majority of New Jersey state Senators and Assembly members.

The New Jersey governor could succeed in obtaining legislative approval of decriminalization of marijuana and enhanced procedures to facilitate the expungement of marijuana usage convictions.  For Progressive Democrats, however, this is not enough.  In Progressive eyes, Phil Murphy will be a failed governor if he is unable to enact marijuana legalization.   

Yet there is one feature of Campaign 2020 that may enhance Murphy’s chances for a high level appointment in the administration of a 2020 elected Democrat president  And the odds in favor of such an election of a Democrat as president in 2020 appear to be almost prohibitive, not only due to Trump toxicity but also the likelihood of a 2019-2020 recession, as signified by the now inverted yield curve in the bond market. 

In spite of his New Jersey political humiliation regarding marijuana legalization, Murphy will retain significant powers regarding the membership of the New Jersey delegation to the 2020 Democratic National Convention.  His endorsement will be much sought by all the Democratic presidential candidates in the field in view of his capacity to influence his delegation vote. 

If Murphy endorses the eventual winner of the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, he will obtain in 2021 his cherished presidential administration appointment, regardless of objection by any Democrat, Progressive or mainstream center-left.   Wall Street Phil Murphy will be off to Washington in early 2021, while Main Street Steve Sweeney will only then face token ineffectual opposition in his campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. 

And at long last the Democrats will have learned a vital lesson.  Stay away from Wall Street personages as gubernatorial nominees.  The last two Democratic elected governors, Phil Murphy and Jon Corzine were politically clueless Wall Street tycoons and gubernatorial failures.  To paraphrase James Carville, for New Jersey Democrats, the mantra in future gubernatorial elections must be, “It’s Main Street, stupid!”  

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. 

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    Sweeney in 2021!

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