February 24, 2011

EVEN THE TIMES:

How Chris Christie Did His Homework (MATT BAI, 2/24/11, NY Times Magazine)

While Christie has flatly ruled out a presidential run in 2012, there is enough conjecture about the possibility that I felt moved to ask him a few weeks ago if he found it exhausting to have to constantly answer the same question. “Listen, if you’re going to say you’re exhausted by that, you’re really taking yourself too seriously,” Christie told me, then broke into his imitation of a politician who is taking himself too seriously. “ ‘Oh, Matt, please, stop asking me about whether I should be president of the United States! The leader of the free world! Please stop! I’m exhausted by the question!’ I mean, come on. If I get to that point, just slap me around, because that’s really presumptuous. What it is to me is astonishing, not exhausting.”

There is, in fact, something astonishing about the ascent of Chris Christie, who is about as slick as sandpaper and who now admits that even he didn’t think he would beat Jon Corzine, the Democrat he unseated in 2009. Some critics have posited that Christie’s success in office represents merely the triumph of self-certainty over complexity, the yearning among voters for leaders who talk bluntly and with conviction. Yet it’s hard to see Christie getting so much traction if he were out there castigating, say, immigrants or Wall Street bankers. What makes Christie compelling to so many people isn’t simply plain talk or swagger, but also the fact that he has found the ideal adversary for this moment of economic vertigo. Ronald Reagan had his “welfare queens,” Rudy Giuliani had his criminals and “squeegee men,” and now Chris Christie has his sprawling and powerful public-sector unions — teachers, cops and firefighters who Christie says are driving up local taxes beyond what the citizenry can afford, while also demanding the kind of lifetime security that most private-sector workers have already lost.

It may just be that Christie has stumbled onto the public-policy issue of our time, which is how to bring the exploding costs of the public workforce in line with reality. (According to a report issued last year by the Pew Center on the States, as of 2008 there was a $1 trillion gap, conservatively speaking, between what the states have promised in pensions and benefits for their retirees and what they have on hand to pay for them.) [...]

What the union’s leadership seems not to have considered is that public sentiment around budgets and public employees has shifted in a fundamental way. For decades, as Keshishian and Giordano were rising up through the union, it probably made sense to adopt a strategy of “no surrender,” to dig in and outlast the occasional politician who might dare to threaten the union’s hard-earned gains. But over the last 10 years or so, most American workers have come to expect less by way of benefits and security from their employers. And with political consensus building toward some kind of public-school reform, teachers’ unions in particular have lost credibility with the public. Forty-­six percent of voters in a poll conducted by Stanford and the Associated Press last September said teachers’ unions deserved either “a great deal” or “a lot” of blame for the problems of public schools.

And so, when the union draws a hard line against changes to its pay and benefit structure, you can see why it might strike some sizable segment of voters as being a little anachronistic, like mimeographing homework assignments or sharpening a pencil by hand. In a Pew Research Center poll this month, 47 percent of respondents said their states should cut pension plans for government employees, which made it the most popular option on the table.

Some unions are more attuned than others to this gradual changing of the climate. The American Federation of Teachers, for example, which is by far the smaller of the two major teachers’ unions nationally, has consciously tried to position itself as a more pragmatic union and has proposed a lot of its own classroom reforms in a campaign to get out in front of public opinion. In Newark, New Jersey’s largest city, A.F.T. organizers have signaled that they will work with Christie on changes to the pension and health care system, in addition to negotiating on issues like merit pay. “Better to be seated at the table than to be on the menu” is how Joseph Del Grosso, the union’s leader in Newark, explained the strategy to me.

But the larger and mightier N.J.E.A. has made the decision to hunker down and fight all comers. And because of that, its leaders run the risk of confirming the public’s darkest suspicions about them, whether they have salient points to make or not. “They may have dug themselves a hole that will be very difficult to dig themselves out of,” Del Grosso says of his competitor. “They are on the menu.”

And so this is why Christie has gone out of his way to anoint the teachers’ union as the most sinister force in the galaxy — not because he has some long-buried torment with a teacher to work through, but because the union does a very capable job of representing for him everything about the public sector that voters don’t like.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 24, 2011 7:07 PM
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