There was one theme missing in all the New Jersey post-election speeches and big-picture bloviating about the future:
A call to bipartisanship.
Sounds like a crazy idea, doesn’t it?
Bipartisanship is something that a good-government do-gooder might prattle on about at a Kiwanis Club luncheon. After five minutes, the audience starts scrolling their Twitter feed.
Nobody talks bipartisanship anymore. Nobody seems eager to listen.
Gov. Phil Murphy, slightly chastened by his closer-than-expected victory earlier this month, didn’t touch the issue in his first post-election speech at the League of Municipalities in Atlantic City. It was more a feel-good rehash of his “fairer, stronger” agenda.
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, who saw his 11-vote majority shrink to five in the Assembly, was quick to remind that the Democrats still rule the roost in Trenton, offering no indication that Republicans are welcome at the bargaining table in the next legislative session.
Outgoing Senate President Steve Sweeney, stunned by his loss to unknown Ed Durr, defended his record and vowed to stay active. He made no mention of his “Path to Progress” that would have set the table for bipartisan talks to cut government spending.
Jack Ciattarelli, the Republican challenger for governor, decried “hyper-partisanship” and “divisiveness” in his concession speech, yet overlooked the fact that he courted the deeply partisan GOP base by donning the mantle of conservative culture warrior during the campaign.
Even Chris Christie, who created his own “institute” to promote bipartisanship several years ago, is now roaming the airwaves as the newfound “Dump Trump” disciple, hawking his latest destined-for-the-discount-rack book and warning Republicans to reject the loonies who have hijacked the GOP. Bipartisanship, it would seem, has been mothballed in a supply closet at Christie’s institute.
It’s easy to see why the topic has vanished from political discourse. Just ask the 13 House Republicans who dared vote for President Joe Biden’s infrastructure package, a measure that routinely won support from both parties. The nihilists who dwell in the Republican base hounded them as traitors.
“I hope you f—ing die, I hope your family f—ing dies, I hope everyone in your f—ing staff dies,” said a voicemail message left with Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.
About seven years ago, as the Tea Party began its stranglehold on the GOP, there was still talk of cultivating a new cooperative space in politics, a bid to restore civility and compromise.
“The idea behind doing that in 2014, 2015 was ‘Hey, we’re getting to a very dangerous place; we really need to dial some of this rhetoric back’ — trying to get back to where we used to be where we could sit down together and break bread,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Poll, who has conducted polls about the public’s views on partisanship.
But former President Donald Trump’s election in 2016 “just threw that out the window,” he said. Politics became zero-sum warfare.
Still, I also see a slight opening in that window here in New Jersey.
Maybe it’s crazy, but consider the environment.
Democrats still retain strong majorities, but they lost seats and support in predominantly blue-collar towns that Biden carried in 2020. Call it the return of the Reagan Democrats.
The Democrats also saw some reversals of fortunes in suburban Republican areas where they made inroads in recent years. Fairly or not, the perception in the Legislature is that Murphy’s message leaned too far to the left. It’s a perception that has now sunk into the Democratic caucus in Trenton.
It’s now the cautious, even slightly more conservative caucus.
Meanwhile, the Republicans are buoyed by the election, and are eager to find a place at the table in Trenton, especially by 2023, when all 120 seats are up for election. Both parties will feel the pressure to point to some results that are of importance to both parties.
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Where I think bipartisanship can go
The election produced two issues that are ripe for bipartisan consideration: property tax reform and a call to standardize the state’s method of tallying votes during an election.
I say this because:
Property-tax reform is a never-die, never-solved issue that affects every homeowner in every county of the state, regardless of their political preference. Property-tax reform is also linked directly into the way the state funds its public schools. Every parent has a stake in reform. If there are ever to be true, systemic changes, bipartisan buy-in will be vital.
Vote tallying standards are critical. The patchwork of election bureaucracies, which vary from county to county, stumbled at the finish line, overwhelmed by glitchy new technology, historic early, in-person voting, and a crush of more than 550,000 mail-in ballots that could not be counted until Election Day. Adding to the confusion was some 70,000 provisional ballots that could not be counted until all the mail-ins were tabulated.
The delays gave people like Ciattarelli and Sweeney the incentive to delay conceding their races, fueling doubts and conspiratorial suspicions.
“We desperately need uniformity and strict reporting guidelines,” Ciattarelli said during his concession speech. “Doing so would bring order to, and most importantly renew faith in, our system.”
Fixing such a glaring problem would be an ideal target for bipartisan cooperation.
Two other issues are ripe for bipartisan compromise:
Modernizing the Motor Vehicle Commission and replacing the creaky unemployment insurance computers would be a start.
Both would require long-term vision, hammered out by both sides. And a commitment to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming years.
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But can it happen?
It should be noted that with such a short window before the next election, both parties are more likely to retreat to their tribal war councils. They will likely cobble together bills that appeal to their base voters, especially the Democrats who hold a 1.1 million advantage over registered Republicans.
There will be some Republicans who will advance bills designed to gin up the base. Sen. Joe Pennacchio, R-Morris, and Sen. Mike Testa, R-Cumberland — the duo who co-chaired Trump’s 2020 campaign in New Jersey — introduced legislation banning the teaching of critical race theory in public schools.
It doesn’t have a chance of getting passed in the Legislature, but it gives the Republicans a platform issue to stir up racial grievance in the GOP base during the next election cycle. It proved to be an effective roil-the-base tactic in Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s victory over Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
Still, the chances of cooperation improved when the GOP has picked Sen. Steve Oroho as its new leader in the Senate. He is a pragmatic financial planner who has collaborated with business-friendly Democrats, like Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Wood-Ridge, on regulatory reform.
Maybe there is a chance.
And there is also Murphy, who is likely to encounter a Legislature that’s less likely to follow his progressive agenda. He might consider pivoting to the center and widening the negotiating table to include Republicans. It could turn down the partisan temperature.
Instead of his goal of turning New Jersey into the “California of the East,” he might consider turning the state into a laboratory of bipartisan governance — something that Christie achieved with some success a decade ago.
“Make no doubt, this state is moving forward. I … am committed to keeping it pointed in this direction. And I look to having you all there by my side,” Murphy said in his speech to the League of Municipalities.
That was a feel-good, crowd-pleasing line.
But imagine if it was his true mission statement for the second term, having everybody at his side at the bargaining table and negotiating the big-ticket issues for the state’s future.
Charlie Stile is a veteran political columnist. For unlimited access to his unique insights into New Jersey’s political power structure and his powerful watchdog work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: NJ election: Can bipartisanship emerge as a real strategy for Democrats?