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What can we learn from Christie?

Q: New Jersey's new Republican governor, Chris Christie, has forced cutbacks in pay for teachers and superintendents, capped local property taxes, cut pension benefits for state workers, canceled popular public works projects and closed a $11 billion state budget deficit. Yet in spite of these highly controversial initiatives and a blunt speaking style, his popularity in a heavily Democratic state is rising. What is the lesson here for other political leaders?

The following responses come from six of the fellows that make up Coro Pittsburgh's 2011 class.


I think this week's prompt is misleading. Chris Christie is not doing anything out of the ordinary. He is just responding to the issues that an electorate changed by the recession now sees. The real question is not what Christie is doing, but which problems are becoming important to residents of New Jersey. A few issues seem particularly salient this election cycle:

Economy. With unemployment rates still high in the sky, people are skeptical of the so-called "recovery" that economists have pointed to in the recent months. When the economy goes bad, voters tend to blame the incumbent party for its woes. In this case, that party is the Democrats.

Deficits. Budget crises have swept through states throughout the country, in particular states with liberal leanings. In a strange turn of events, balancing the budget has turned into a sexy political item for politicians. Voters are more willing than ever to let politicians cut programs in order to avoid raising taxes, which Christie has done with abandon.

Political Inaction.
Every midterm election voters become disillusioned when the ruling party does not do everything it said it would last time around. 2010 is no different. With big-issue items like immigration, climate change and Don't Ask Don't Tell stalled in Congress, Christie's ability to move the New Jersey legislature must seem like a breath of fresh air.

Perhaps some conservative politician out there is trying out a new, successful leadership style and winning over the hearts and minds of passionate, bleeding-heart liberals. However, that person is not Chris Christie. --Tim Shaw

Chris Christie comes across as blunt and brutish, but he's also seen as levelheaded and pragmatic, and considered a strong opponent of government corruption. His positions are considerably more centrist than those we're seeing from most Republicans this season...and he even hangs out with Corey Booker. In fact, every Republican gubernatorial candidate within earshot, like Pennsylvania's Tom Corbett and even Illinois' Bill Brady, wants Christie stumping for him.

Christie campaigned on the idea of closing New Jersey's budget deficit, and his popularity may be rising for simply sticking to that promise--especially during a time when political promise-keeping seems increasingly rare. Additionally, his ability to remain on-message is likely resonating with constituents who are dreadfully tired of both the real and perceived "flip-flopping" they have come to expect from career politicians.

Many Democrats, including myself, have been lulled into a begrudging respect for Christie. As much as we'd like to see new multi-billion dollar tunnels and drastic raises in education expenditures, we realize that we're no longer living in the era of the blank check, and no one can get furious about deficit reduction.

Let's remember that Christie has only been in office for about nine months. It's far too early for us to tell if this popularity will hold, or if his fiscal house-cleaning has simply made him the flavor of the month. Either way, one lesson politicians should take away from all this is the importance of sticking to one's campaign message and following it through to its logical conclusion. Staying true to your word fires up your base and provides the opposition party with considerably less fuel to douse you in. --Dan Barrett

Gov. Chris Christie embodies the idea that tenacious leadership is often more effective than simply winning hearts and minds. At a time when the economy is in terrible shape, unemployment is high, and the public is showing great discontent with political leadership, elected officials are bound to disappoint some of their constituents with every choice they make. Christie is no exception to this rule; he cut $820 million from New Jersey's education budget, dismissed 1,300 state employees, capped property tax increases at 2.5 percent, and eliminated cash welfare--the list goes on.

Nevertheless, while his choices have caused a lot of people on both sides of the aisle to sacrifice, he is sticking to his guns. He ran on the platform that government needs to be smaller and that the fiscal budget needs to be in order, and he promised not to raise taxes. Since coming to office, Christie has done just that; and his popularity continues to rise, indicating that the American public values action over rhetoric. His tenacious decisions, while initially largely unpopular, seem to be understood as ultimately necessary.

Christie, however, is not so unusual; his tenacity and bold rhetoric are not unlike other historic leaders. Although maybe a far stretch, looking closely, his style could be compared to that of Winston Churchill, who made difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions to secure Allied victory in World War II. The British heavily criticized Churchill's support of British rearmament against the Germans; however, his aggressive and decisive choice to carry on without popular support indicates that effective leadership often goes against popular opinion. Historically, therefore, it seems that the public values leaders with the discipline to show them the right thing to do and lead them to understand the significance of personal sacrifice in contributing to a greater good. Churchill certainly displayed this; whether Christie does is still to be determined.

As the fiscal crisis continues, it will be interesting to see how tenacious leadership continues to rise in popularity. Christie makes a central dilemma of politics clear: effective leadership is sometimes not about popularity, but about making the hard choices that no one will like. --Emily Blakemore

Chris Christie's kamikaze policies have earned him many things since he was elected in 2010: a thumbs-up from Limbaugh, a state full of angry teachers, a growing gaggle of twitter followers, and bewildered liberals wondering, "Why is this guy so popular?"

Why wouldn't he be popular?

He is doing the things he said he would do before he was elected, and in a timely fashion. He is arguably more invested in his policies than in his politics and claims he doesn't care if he is elected again. He is attempting to dig his state out of a gigantic financial hole, and it seems to be working. But at what cost?

Christie's budget cuts seem to be calculated punishments for the areas of New Jersey that are most obviously distressed. On Twitter, Christie claims that the "Teachers union is succeeding at teaching kids in our failing districts @ highest cost in nation" while simultaneously limiting funding for the teachers who teach those kids. If this is not a blatant attempt to excuse cuts in teachers' salaries and benefits because of the performance of the schools in which they teach, then Sarah can see Russia from her home. There is nothing about cutting these expenses which will help the schools get back on their feet and achieve more, just as there is no evidence that cutting taxes for millionaires will boost the economy in New Jersey. But somehow Christie has convinced about half of the state that these practices are beneficial to the state's future, if only because they save money.

Although I find the substance of Christie's policies reprehensible, his methods of garnering support are impressive. There are a few things I think other politicians should learn from Christie in order to become competitive in an increasingly partisan national environment:

1. Long-term policies are useless unless there are short-term policies that can show the public immediate results.
2. Extremism is here to stay--all other bets are off.
3. Be ruthless. The public loves an underdog. The more enemies you garner, the more attention you get. The more attention you get, the more the public wants to find a reason to support you.

I'd argue that assuming the viewpoint of Joe Six-Pack is most valuable in the analysis of this case. Show me that these policies work, that something can finally fix our economic crises on state and national levels, and I may be willing to cut back on pensions, pay teachers less and--hell, while I'm at it--even cut back on the menus in children's homes. I am waiting anxiously to see if all of these sacrifices are worth it, if the new breed of super conservatives is a permanent fixture in American politics, and if liberals will jump on board the crazy train. I am sure at least one of these things is inevitable. --Sophia Yeung

As a former public school teacher who made the difficult decision to resign because I found my name on the lay-off list after severe budget cuts, my knee-jerk reaction to this week's prompt is that if a public still approves of a governor after he makes $820 million in cuts to public schools, then that public does not know what is good for itself.

This knee-jerk reaction, however, clashed directly with my trust in public voice. I stepped back and considered the hypothesis that a leader's ratings may naturally plummet after an unpopular fiscal decision that affects large groups of constituents such as teachers, and that these ratings may stabilize after resilient citizens acclimate to the decision.

Although voters expressed their initial disapproval of Christie's executive decisions, they may now be giving him some credit for sticking to his guns and walking with a sure step. Christie has been explicit about the fact that real change--not his popularity and or his reelection--is his priority. Ironically, a public that disagrees with a leader's decisions may actually have more confidence in that leader for making decisions that he believes are correct--not decisions that will preserve his political power. Christie's solution to the state deficit may not be the solution the New Jersey public would have liked to rally around, but the increase in his approval ratings may reflect the hope that at some point in the future, this decision will stabilize New Jersey's economy and reward citizens for their sacrifices. That being said, although citizens are much more patient and forgiving than some leaders give them credit for, they may not remain patient forever.

Lastly, a leader would be hasty to interpret this upswing in approval ratings as a new-found endorsement of his budget decisions or even a validation that the decisions he has made are correct. I look forward to continuing to watch the fluctuations of Christie's approval ratings as the consequences of this budget plan unfold. --Ann Wang

People are tired of the status quo. This new budding class of leaders, in both parties, is looking both for a change and to make a name for themselves. Effective leaders today use their personalities as change agents. Chris Christie is bold, without a doubt--basing teacher salaries on classroom performance and reducing pension benefits for current public employees to name a few of his proposals.

Christie fully supports his fellow Republican Tom Corbett from Pennsylvania in his bid for governor. Christie said, "When you have me and Tom Corbett on either side of the Delaware River, things are changing." There is that "change" word again. Obama ignited the word and Republicans are running with it; and I cannot deny they are doing are good job.

As an emerging leader, I disagree with Christie's policies, but I agree with his leadership style. He has the ability to unite his party even across state lines and rally support across party lines. Political leaders should not only talk the talk, but walk the walk. Given our current economic crisis, change is the only option. Political leaders' backs are against the wall, and the status quo is unacceptable. A leader recognizes when change is necessary and how to implement it. They may have lost the opportunity in this election season, but in the next I charge the Democratic Party to develop a united message that not only addresses change, but how to implement it. The lesson here is that Democrats need to step up their game. --Channing Martin

By Coro Fellows

 |  October 12, 2010; 1:43 PM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Crisis leadership , Government leadership , Leadership personalities , Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Leading a divided public | Next: Christie is taking a short-sighted approach

Comments

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In response to Dan's statement:
"Many Democrats, including myself, have been lulled into a begrudging respect for Christie. As much as we'd like to see new multi-billion dollar tunnels and drastic raises in education expenditures, we realize that we're no longer living in the era of the blank check, and no one can get furious about deficit reduction."

Is Christie truly worthy of our respect for taking a stand on this issue only to take a step back and leave open the option the tunnel will be completed after a meeting with Ray LaHood. His constituents in New Jersey especially those anxious commuters who travel to New York each day won't know the fate of the project for a few more days.

Even though the current popular tide, especially in the context of these elections, is to cut spending at any cost to the public. It might be bolder of him to allow for this project to continue knowing that it will pay dividends in the future while creating construction jobs in the process. It is at times of economic hardship that it is most wise to build for the future in the hopes of mitigating the impact of future downturns.

Posted by: 1Stoic | October 18, 2010 2:48 AM
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I would like to pose a question for Ms. Blakemore:

Can't tenacious leadership have the ability to win over hearts and minds?

In your brief statement, you differentiate one leadership style over the other. I believe Governor Christie has utilized his tenacity and almost brutally blunt approach to win over the hearts and minds of Conservative citizens in America.

It reminds me of Sarah Palin and here ability to rile up the dog pack by throwing in raw meat and giving them what they want. How is Gov. Christie any different? And how do you differentiate between the two leadership styles that you mentioned when one isn't necessarily mutually exclusive.

Posted by: skepticLA | October 17, 2010 6:11 PM
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Regarding Mr. Barrett's post, specifically the following language:

"His positions are considerably more centrist than those we're seeing from most Republicans this season...and he even hangs out with Corey Booker."

Is this a fact or an assumption, that his positions are considerably more centrist than "most Republicans"? I only ask because I recently saw Governor Christie speak at a dinner supporting Meg Whitman in Los Angeles, and his views were applauded by the conservative right. Additionally, what credibility (or not) does Governor Christie gain by alluding to the idea that he "hangs out with Corey Booker." Who is Corey Booker (for those readers unfamiliar) and how does this make Governor Christie different under the light you're casting him under?

Interesting posts by all. I look forward to reading more soon!

Posted by: xuxazuzu | October 17, 2010 5:26 PM
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Ann Wang stated that a leader would be hasty to argue that an upswing in his approval ratings meant an endorsement of his budget. Leaders use high approval ratings often as proof the voters like their plans. President Bush argued the 2004 election gave him a mandate. Early in his administration Governor Schwarzenegger used the same argument, voters approved of his plans based on his approval ratings. Are leaders who use approval numbers acting hasty or is this just a communication and political strategy?

Posted by: lsb05 | October 16, 2010 1:18 PM
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Do you have actual statistics where Chris Christie's number is rising among Democrats? As a new jerseyian who knows the truth about Chris Christie I think the media is being blindsighted by another Bush "man" moment. All talk and bluster as he eventually drives the state to further economic ruin. Cutting taxes for the rich and slashing programs and services for the middle class and people who needs them most.

Posted by: johay232 | October 16, 2010 4:38 AM
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Is the integrity of message itself as important as its delivery? Is the lesson of Christie about his presentation of himself or his actual ideas?

Is leadership a function of a substantive message or of a persuasive presentation?

Posted by: emg1011 | October 16, 2010 2:15 AM
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@Lensch. You ignore the fact that when the last "millionaire" tax went into effect in New Jersey and even in MD, tax receipts went DOWN because the "millionaires" left the state.

Posted by: robc1 | October 13, 2010 5:05 PM
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This guy has not followed through on his campaign promises. Property taxes are going up for everyone in this state yet again. With Christie slashing aid to schools and municipalities the average person is seeing about $1000 increase in their taxes for less services. He is indirectly responsible for this. I read the post for its great articles and journalism, but reporters please investigate before you write articles that praise someone who hurt middle class people that live in NJ!!!

Posted by: jcb99 | October 13, 2010 11:06 AM
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State and local governments cut 83,000 jobs in September. Concern over defaults on muni debt is growing. Whether you support the tea party or not, all over the country we are starting to see austerity measures in the headlines. Example- in my home state of NJ the massive train infrastructure project into Manhattan was slashed due to costs. If tough decisions aren’t made soon, here is where we are headed.

Municipal Bond Crisis- http://www.hiddenlevers.com/hl/u?9tkr1a

Posted by: prime99 | October 12, 2010 5:29 PM
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There is too much here to comment on fully. Let me restrict myself to one point that Paul Krugman has made very effectively.

Suppose you think we are in too much debt. Suppose you falsely believe that raising taxes is always bad. So you cut spending to reduce the deficit. But cutting out needed projects and services like education negatively impact the economy. (Can you point to a period when raising taxes does this?) The result is that your tax collections fall and in spite of reduced spending, the deficit (and the debt) increase.

You can see this very clearly in FDR's first 6 years. Look at a graph of spending and employment. You will see the same graph shifted. Cut spending, employment went down; raise it, a little later emplorment picked up.

It's not rocket science folks.

Posted by: lensch | October 12, 2010 5:11 PM
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