In 1789, General George Washington was nervous about what he ought to do first as a new President. Looking for help, he sent a rider to Somerset to ask Frederick Frelinghuysen, “What would New Jersey do?” Frelinghuysen’s advice proved so sage that all Presidents have followed this tradition and reached out to New Jersey for help in kicking off their presidency. Rumor has it that after defeating him in the nod for the Presidency at 1960 Democratic Convention, John Kennedy asked the question of former New Jersey governor Robert Meyner. Meyner said “Space, John, let’s go to space.”[i]
Since President-elect Joe Biden only has 47 years of federal experience to draw on, it seems likely that he is going to also follow this tradition. However, because the next couple of months are likely to be a wild ride of lawsuits and recounts, I thought I would save Joe the phone call and try to answer the question for him. Hopefully, he can learn from recent experiences in New Jersey and like General Washington have a successful presidency.
One of the real joys in watching the Phil Murphy is when it looks like the Governor is about to explode in string of poetic profanity only to come out with “those gosh darn knuckleheads.” In the coming months, we are all going to want to swear like a longshoreman’s wife when the outgoing President makes false claims that aliens (either space or generic border crossing ones) dropped truckloads of democratic ballots all over swing states. As Murphy has shown, resisting the profanity impulse is a good tool for showing that you can calmly deal with irrational behavior. Being calm and under control has historically been a minimum standard for a president, but one that hasn’t been met in the last 4 years. Being calm, cool, collected and embracing no profanity Dad speak, is a good way for President-elect Biden to start getting us back to normal.
For months Governor Murphy held socially distant, masked-up Covid-19 press conferences. They were like clockwork, every day right after lunch. Some days there was literally nothing to say, which didn’t stop them from going on for an hour or more. But the point wasn’t really content, it was consistency. They were always consistent, steady, predictable, earnest and accessible, if only electronically. More recently, Governor Murphy has held them less often, but he still comes back to them and when he does it feels like a kid coming back to a snuggly blanket.
President-elect Biden should do the same thing. Hold one press briefing a day. Hold it at the same time every day. Talk about Covid-19 and what is going on. Or talk about the steps being taken in the transition. Or talk about that time he beat Obama in a game of horse. Maybe call Trump a knuckle-head, but not every day. The goal is to remind everyone what having an adult in charge looks like. It will look pretty good, pretty fast. But having a steady briefing of one story a day from the President-elect will be a welcome relief from the 6 story a day poop show we have had for the last 4 years.
Don’t get all wacky
Not all New Jersey lessons come from Governor Murphy. It looks like Democratic Party turncoat Jeff Van Drew held his 2nd congressional district seat as a Republican. He didn’t win it because anyone for that matter loves Jeff Van Drew. He is kind of a knuckle-head. While we will need to do some digging to determine exactly why he won, here is one possibility to consider. He ran against a Kennedy and rightly or wrongly Kennedy means liberal. Amy Kennedy is a strong candidate, she ran a good race, and she is by no means a flaming liberal. But again the Kennedy name is. I can’t help but wonder if Trump’s comeback nationally and Van Drew’s locally was voters hedging their bets. I can hear some 2nd district voters saying;
Ok Biden, we will give you a shot because Trump is so awful, but just in case we won’t give you the senate and take away some house seats so you won’t go all socialist on us.
I know, I know Biden isn’t close to a socialist but the fear and rhetoric is that he is closet one. That coupled with the overexcited true Trump believers this election was significantly closer than expected or than it should have been.
I can’t believe I am saying this
Go with me on this one. The loudest and clearest repudiation of President Trump’s baloney fest of a press conference was New Jersey’s own Chris Christie. Other members of the GOP gave sort of mush-mouthed “bad Donnie” statements on it. But Christie was first and it remains the loudest. Coupled with Christie’s “I screwed up and Covid ain’t no joke,” mea culpa, Christie is acting like he did when the world fell in love with him. I don’t think he can ever fully get that back and I don’t really care if he can. Ok, I care a little.
But I think Biden should reach out to Christie. Call him, thank him for standing up to Trump, ask for advice on how to handle the Orange one. Maybe it doesn’t go beyond that, maybe it does. But the more that Biden can try to recreate adult politics with any real adult regardless of party… the better off he will be. Obviously, Christie may or may not be an adult again. But the point is Biden ought to find out and try to talk to adults wherever they are.
The flip side of this of course is that sometime adults have to say no to the kids. We have a moral obligation to try and stop climate change, but the Green New Deal in its entirety is not how to do it. Say yes to part of it but not all of it. College tuition is way too high and it sucks for those of us who still have college debt. But waving magic money printing wands to get rid of existing debt is not the answer. Focus on keeping the next generation out of debt. The Republican Supreme Court will hurt, no doubt about it. But someone has to say no to the kids that want to pack the court with more members. Maybe have that discussion and other court reform ideas when the balance is 4 to 4 and someone retires, but adults don’t change the rules when times get tough.
Those aren’t easy decisions to make. But this presidency is not about doing great things. This presidency is about repairing the tone of the culture, reaffirming the institutions of the American democracy and de-escalating polarization. Because until those things are repaired really great things can’t happen.
Don’t mess with traffic
Two of the biggest stories in the closing days of the election focused on traffic. One was the Trump supporters who blocked traffic on the Garden State. The other was the Texas Trump truck that attacked a Biden campaign bus. While Biden is talking to Chris Christie, he should ask how messing with traffic plays with voters? New Jersey cares about infrastructure, traffic and trains more than most. We have massive needs for roads, bridges, trains and buses. However, New Jersey isn’t alone, the rest of the country cares about it also. Unless there are 3 Georgia miracles this year, it is likely that Democrats will not take over the senate. Covid-19 will and should be the primary focus of the Biden administration but infrastructure and building it in a smart way has the potential to actually get done and at the same time help unify the country.
You hear that you (%#@&!!*) son of (#^&*%#!!)? We want our (#$&@(&^$$)new ($%^#@&&!!!) tunnel to the city and if we don’t get it we are going to bust you in your (#$%&@*^&) jaw!
Sorry, New Jersey can only go so long without swearing. Good luck Joe, we are hear for you. Call when you need us.
[i] If you are reading this footnote because you thought this story was an example of an academic peddling fake news and not a joke, please step away for politics and take a walk for a bit.