New Jersey Politics: Not So Much Like National Politics

A word to national political reporters looking to find broader meaning in Chris Christie’s dealings with New Jersey Democrats, or for that matter in events in any state (this means you, Matt Bai): don’t miss Steve Kornacki’s terrific discussion of Christie’s “Democratic helpers” from late last month.

Kornacki’s point is that the key to understanding how Christie found Democratic support for radical changes to public employees’ pension and healthcare benefits lies in understanding how New Jersey’s Democratic Party works. Specifically, it means understanding the role of George Norcross, the Democratic boss who runs the party in South Jersey and wields substantial power in Essex County in the north.

Norcross is a business-friendly Democrat who is willing to cut deals with Republicans and had terrible relationships with more labor-oriented Democrats like former governors Jon Corzine and Richard Codey. Not coincidentally, as Kornacki notes, the Democratic legislators who voted for Christie’s reforms came from… South Jersey and Essex County.

Kornacki’s post is a great example of political analysis informed by a deep understanding of local conditions. At the same time, it’s a warning against extrapolating from the state to the national level without that understanding. For the purposes of this deal, the key feature of the New Jersey Democratic Party is that it still operates in many ways as a political machine. That means bosses wield substantial power through patronage, and ideological or policy commitments may sometimes take a backseat to the exigencies of the moment. As governor, Christie successfully shaped the agenda by forcing lawmakers to take a stance on public employee benefits. But his smartest strategic move was probably less adopting a post-partisan “reform” message than figuring out how to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the Democrats.

National politics, though, don’t work the same way. The key players in national parties are not individual bosses, but “intense policy demanders” who put pressure on elected officials not to stray too far off script—a distinction that has real implications for the likelihood of bipartisan deals, and in how committed a party’s elected officials will be to a set of policy views. Or, as Kornacki put it: “the fact that Christie was able to score this victory tells us a lot more about the vagaries of New Jersey politics than about the national scene.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.