New Jersey Republicans (Still) Have An Identity Crisis

The New Jersey Republican Party has a major identity crisis right now.

When I talk to fairly apolitical people and ask them what Republicans in the state stand for, they have no clue. It’s not surprising they don’t. Many of the policies that have been pursued are either big talk with little to no action or center-left (we only have to look at the recent legislator mid-term grades by Americans for Prosperity for proof of that).

Pension reform started out with some big talk by Governor Christie. For example, Christie came out blazing for pension reform and capping property taxes at a mandatory 2.5% property tax increase cap. And things started to look up as he pressured the teachers’ and police unions. Unfortunately, pension reform all but fizzled out by 2017. Many towns annually find ways to circumvent the cap. After some small wins in court such as freezing cost of living raises, nothing groundbreaking happened under the watch of the governor and the New Jersey Legislature. And now we are still facing the day of pension reckoning.

Christie’s reforms and deal-making failed to address the fundamental problem: why are those towns raising the taxes? The answer is simple: (1) education spending and (2) spending more on increasingly-expensive services for the town. Neither problem is one Trenton can solve with a simple fix, but only through changing the voters’ vision of those services and how inefficiently they are administered.

Now I know what you’re going to tell me. Who controls the New Jersey Legislature? I know; Democrats control it, but maybe we should ask ourselves why? I know it’s easy to blame it on the voters. They just don’t get our message or follow closely enough.

But isn’t that our problem? If they don’t understand the message, we haven’t presented it properly. The message being the principles that guide our party and the presentation being the marketing. Unfortunately, our party has failed on both accounts.

We don’t appear to have guiding principles nor the marketing campaign. It wouldn’t matter how lopsided the legislative map might be.

Governor Christie had some guiding principles early on but that slowly started to evaporate as he dealt with a hostile legislature, which we always knew would be the case. These guiding principles were less spending, reforming the pension system, and tax reform, especially on property taxes. The marketing at first was great and Governor Christie even had some support. But then the friction with the two parties occurred and we couldn’t make a good enough case why these things had to happen. Democrats were winning the marketing battle, and unfortunately they have an innate advantage in New Jersey thanks in part to a largely complicit media.

Now the rest is history and many things occurred in-between but it’s no longer clear what Republicans stand for as Governor Christie didn’t live up to many of the promises.

Promises ring hollow when not followed through, which is where I think we need to change on the marketing challenge. Why promise something we can’t or don’t deliver on?

Let’s use a recent real-life example of what just occurred, the gas tax hike to re-fund the New Jersey Transportation Trust Fund (TTF). We should have opposed any attempt to raise the gas tax. Our message should have been to focus on the spending of the TTF’s resources and the guiding principle to let the Democrats raise a regressive tax even if it meant we received nothing in return. The marketing would have been easy. Democrats can’t find a way to cut a budget that spends a $2.18 million dollars per mile of road and instead want to hurt the poor to make up for it!

This is how they always attack us and now we can use it against them. But of course that’s not the way it went down.

Some Republicans thankfully did focus on this, including external organizations, but overall the focus was on a compromise to trade the gas tax for a delayed minor reduction in the sales tax and a delayed repeal of the estate tax. I know Republicans could claim that the overall burden of the taxes went down, but tell that to the single mother or struggling family that relies on gas to get around and to work (after all, New Jersey isn’t known for being the most walkable or the best state for public transportation).

In fact, Democrats got a two-fold advantage in their marketing to the people: Republicans were for an estate tax repeal for the rich at the expense of gas tax increase for the poor and Democrats in swing districts could say they voted against it. This fundamentally not only goes against our guiding principles, but there’s no easy way to market that. So it hurt us on two fronts. And it makes the people lose trust in Republicans. Wasn’t the Republican message supposed to focus on less taxes and spending? Instead, there’s nothing that focused on the TTF itself (more spending AND borrowing) and we raised the tax that hurts the most (more taxes). And the ballot question to dedicate the TTF revenues did nothing to ultimately solve the spending within the TTF even though we rank as the worst state in road spending per mile.

To quote our current president, “We make bad deals.”

Let Democrats make the poor legislative choices that harm the people who are struggling get by and let’s point that out to the voters as clearly as possible using any medium possible (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, newspapers, TV, radio, etc.). If we stood on the guiding principles of less spending, less taxes, and pension reform, we already have a huge advantage. But then the key is the marketing of it. We need to make it clear we will defend that single mother or struggling family and not allow the Democrats to take away food on their plate, as Mick Mulvaney, President Trump’s Office of Management and Budget Director, did recently.

Mulvaney had the perfect way of describing the cut to funding to line items like the federal government funding of the arts or Meals on Wheels. He said should that struggling family or a single mother have to pay for the arts or Meals on Wheels when they can hardly put food on their table themselves.

The media criticized him for it, but how do you think that feels to the person who is actually struggling and has 15 – 25% taken out of their paycheck to income taxes?

So I ask you, the average Republican New Jersey voter, what are our guiding principles? And how do we market them to the voter? I believe once we figure this out, we have a good shot at taking back Trenton. If you do not believe that is ever possible, we only need to see how states change over time in American history. We can’t ask the people to send Republicans to Trenton on sheer trust.

We need to convince them what they’re sending (guiding principles) and why it will be good to the voters (marketing). Donald Trump created the slogan, “Make America Great Again.” I would suggest the slogan, “Make New Jersey Affordable for All.”