11.04.09

New Jersey's Obama Wannabe

Chris Christie rode to victory in New Jersey by grabbing the president's change mantra. Lee Siegel on the GOP governor-elect's audacity of hope.

The Wrong One won in New Jersey Tuesday. He did it through the audacity of hope that things could change, the belief that the era of business-as-usual was over, the claim that the arrogance and mistakes of his predecessor had brought the state to the brink of economic collapse. Yes we can, he told his passionate followers, and he rode a wave of indignant fury to the governor’s mansion. Meet Chris Christie, the Garden State’s very own Obama.

There is one constant in American politics right now: an atmosphere of crisis and confusion. It got Obama elected. It got Chris Christie elected. It threatens to undo Obama, and it will quickly undo Christie if it does not subside (if the Democrat-controlled state legislature doesn’t get him first). Dire material circumstances, anger, and fear explain why independents and Democrats who voted for Obama voted for Christie and still claim allegiance to Obama. We are now in a moment that is as ripe for a Republican rebirth as for a progressive renaissance.

This is not to say—this is really not to say—that Christie has anything in common with the president. At a time when voters seem more pragmatic than guided by party values, the difference between Christie and Corzine was almost rudimentarily ideological.

Christie played on blind rage against the incumbent in just the same way as Obama did.

The tax-and-spend liberal governor who could not tame the beast of property taxes was defeated by the Republican challenger, who promised to cut income taxes, shrink government and, yes, tame the beast of property taxes. How he was going to cut the state income tax for residents and businesses in New Jersey while at the same time reducing property taxes—which municipalities use to pick up the slack left by low or diverted state income taxes—Christie hasn’t said. These could well be the worst four years in the state’s history.

All politics is indeed local and Christie’s victory was, to a great degree, a replay of Christine Todd Whitman’s much slimmer triumph over the tax-and-spend liberal Democratic governor Jim Florio in 1993 (which ushered in four of the worst years in the state’s history). And just as the Democrat Bill Clinton had one year before been elected by an electorate fed up with the economic policies of his Republican predecessor, the Republican Whitman got elected in New Jersey by an electorate equally fed up with the economic policies of her Democratic predecessor.

In both cases, then and now, the same anxious atmosphere created an identical political logic that produced two completely different ideological results.

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The climate now, however, is far more precarious, and so politics is going to be more determined by circumstances than by any particular political personality or philosophy. Never mind that the well-intentioned Corzine could not be more different from the criminally stupid George W. Bush. Christie played on blind rage against the incumbent in just the same way as Obama did.

We are in a new age, that’s for sure. But the thing about a new age is that it is open to all comers. In the same way that we update our handheld technology by the month, or that some of us abandon lovers as soon as they no longer satisfy our needs, we are guided by the principle of perpetual change—rather than by ideology or even perception of character—in our political choices. No one should be surprised that while Republicans took the governorship in New Jersey and Virginia, a Democrat won the (wonderfully bizarre) congressional election in upstate New York, in a Republican district that had not voted for a Democrat since the 19th century. Whirling, jarring, briefly gratifying change is king.

A whirling economy and a whirling society and culture have given impatience its own political mandate. The hopeful and new now gets failed and old in nanoseconds. We are in the midst of revulsion, not revolution. No single figure has the market on this tumultuous condition, and everything—and everyone—is up for grabs.

Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books:Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.