From the NJ to Congress, politics is now a war of competing visions
Just for fun, I watched political TV the other night.
I know what you are thinking. Several million cat videos are surely more interesting, right? And what about those reruns of “Law and Order”? Or the PBS fundraising gigs with 1950s doo-woppers that seem a bit below a retirement home? Or that home improvement network featuring otherwise nonviolent people “emptying” their kitchens with hammers?
To name just a few alternatives.
But it’s another election season. Moreover, Congress faces its own concocted dilemma. Should he approve one of the biggest government cash expenditures in the history of the planet or let the US economy crumble in financial dust?
And here in New Jersey, in the midst of a governorship campaign, we have “Forward Phil” versus “Jersey Jack”.
It was time, I thought, to plug in.
I started with the televised debate between the outgoing Democratic Governor of New Jersey, Phil Murphy, and his Republican challenger, Jack Ciattarelli, the former member of the Assembly of the State of Hillsborough. Then I moved to Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist who dreams of turning America into Norway. Along the way, I even managed to check out former President Donald Trump’s latest “stop the fly” message.
At this point, maybe I should have started looking for a rerun of “Gilligan’s Island”. But I persisted. And in this scattered sample of political television, I also made a discovery: American politics may seem like a little food fight right now, framed by nuances and backstage deals, from Washington to Trenton – and to the -of the. But what is really happening is a major war of competing visions.
Right now, those visions are blurry.
Jack vs. Phil
Let’s start with New Jersey and the gubernatorial debate.
Murphy’s core campaign message seems to come down to this line from his hour-long debate with Ciattarelli the other night: “Go forward or back.”
It’s a heartwarming phrase, probably the kind Murphy has heard for years at Wall Street marketing seminars. But what does this really mean?
To his credit, Murphy talks about spreading New Jersey prosperity to every corner of America’s most ethnically diverse state. He wants tax fairness and better funding for schools, more control over rising tuition fees at state colleges and a higher minimum wage. Fairness seems to be Murphy’s mantra.
It is commendable. But what is so “ahead” about it? Such a proposal has been a mainstay of kitchen table politics in New Jersey for generations.
Jim Florio, the South Jersey Democrat who was ousted after a single term as governor, has made tax fairness and improved school funding a cornerstone of his agenda. In their own way and with their own message, Republicans Tom Kean, Christine Todd Whitman and Chris Christie have done the same. Even term Democrats Jim McGreevey and Jon Corzine have said it as well, but with different wording.
So what’s the new vision here?
“We have to keep moving forward,” Murphy intoned at one point in the debate.
Such a line raises a question that some in New Jersey are backing down – in this case, Jack Ciattarelli. What Ciattarelli is asking, however, is not so much a backslid question as it is a question that also looks to the horizon: How can New Jersey prevent property taxes – and other taxes – from increasing?
It is not a small point. But that poses another difficult question that Ciattarelli skillfully dodges: How can the New Jersey government pay for all the services demanded by its constituents without raising taxes?
We want well-staffed police services, even in the smallest of communities. But can we afford to pay the cops $ 100,000 a year and not regionalize our police force?
We also want rut-free roads. But can we afford it without increasing tolls – and the gasoline tax?
We also want to preserve our top-rated public school systems. But can we do it if we slash teachers’ salaries and their pensions?
“Here is my goal,” Ciattarelli said at the end of the debate, explaining that he would cut property taxes, create more jobs, correct the tax code and “reduce and streamline” state government.
It’s a noble notion, just like Murphy’s. But this is nothing new. Ciattarelli’s question is also not: “Are you better today than four years ago?”
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill
The debate has ended. I switched channels and found Sanders threatening to throw sand at the Democratic plan to fix America’s infrastructure if he didn’t fulfill his wish to transform the nation’s social safety net.
Sanders seems to me a man without a country. He wants to fix America. But he wants him to look like one of the socialized nations of Europe.
In fact, he’s dreamed of it for years, from his pre-Woodstock college activist days. And now, as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, he has serious power. But he still behaves like an activist from the 1960s. He doesn’t seem to understand that politics is about compromising and building coalitions. The Sanders’ vision seems to boil down to this: All or nothing. In the 1960s, many activists had the same vision.
Sadly now, that vision is shared by far too many other Democrats in Congress.
Republicans are not doing much better. Several political analysts suggest as Republicans, with their efforts throughout the summer to cut COVID-19 vaccinations and their recent refusals to increase federal borrowing levels to pay off debts incurred under the Trump administration, sabotage the nation. In other words: Do Republicans want America to flop so they can gain the upper hand?
Is it their vision? The question is not absurd.
In 2016, Trump energized a significant portion of the American electorate with his vision to “make America even better.”
Yes, it was a marketing ploy – taken straight from the same Trump playbook that once claimed that one of his Atlantic City casinos, which ultimately went bankrupt, was the ‘eighth wonder of the world’ .
Sadly, far too many of our political visions now appear weak, perhaps even bankrupt.
From New Jersey to Congress, we aspire to something hopeful – and tangible. Not just another marketing slogan or the political equivalent of a video chat.
We are still waiting.
Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we experience life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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