ROONEY’S DEBATE RECAP: Dueling Tax Plans, RGGI Inexplicably Returns, and Christie Looms Large

So I was one of probably five (?) people watching last night’s NJTV-broadcasted GOP gubernatorial debate at Stockton University, Save Jerseyans, and, save for a few exceptionally stupid questions (more on that shortly), I found the clash between Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Jack Ciattarelli illuminating.

There’s a LOT to discuss so let’s hit the major points:

Both oppose sanctuary cities… good.

Both oppose the recent gas tax hike… good.

Both are several miles to the ideological right of the communists who participated in the Democrat debate later that evening… good, but perhaps that’s not saying much.

Pot came up and North Jersey casinos did, too.

Gun rights never came up… one of many curious omissions which made little to no sense given the issue’s importance in recent national and state public policy discussions as well as the fact that the audience suffered not one but TWO simple-minded “why can’t politicians play nice?” questions. Barf. We actually ended this critical primary debate, in a near-bankrupt state facing dramatic financial challenges, with a…. federal arts funding question. Seriously, Stockton? These “why can’t we all get along” questions are dumb and (should be) beneath a gubernatorial debate. Needed to get that off of my chest!

Ciattarelli (L) and Guadagno (R) sparred during Tuesday night’s Stockton debate.

Of note: neither participating GOP candidate strongly supported the repeal of Obamacare.

“As I read it now, it is a disaster and we have to fix it,” Guadagno said of the controversial AHCA since it’s “slowly going broke,” echoing a dominant Washington GOP line in circulation as of late.

Ciattarelli withheld judgment on the newly-minted AHCA as it awaits Senate scrutiny but expressed similar concern for the poor if Medicaid funding takes a hit.

Why neither candidate seized the opportunity to express concern for you and me — the legions of Middle Class folks who pay the bills but got shafted by Obamacare — is as disappointing as it is perplexing, folks, but it’s also nothing new.

Perhaps too many Republican politicians have been spooked by a literal interpretation of the polling on this issue and the media-enhanced protest optics; in any event, this is looking like another regrettable instance where Republicans are accepting a bad premise and forfeiting the high ground as a result. We’re so afraid of how what we say will be spun that we seem to live on defense. It’s one of the major reasons why we lose! And I don’t know why we continue to let ourselves be boxed in like this. I truly don’t.

Both candidates gave similarly disappointing answers on natural gas pipelines; as soon as someone finds a SHRED of evidence suggesting that they aren’t the safest possible alternatives aside from nuclear energy — which both candidates do support — then I’ll accept this concern as something other than pandering.

In any event, Assemblyman Ciattarelli’s economic and budget-related answers on the whole were extremely well fleshed-out and articulately delivered, something I also observed during our recent Save Jersey FacebookLIVE event with the Somerset legislator, for example when the CPA/MBA (he reminded us of his credentials multiple times throughout the evening) explained why wind energy isn’t a viable solution for New Jersey (an important point of contrast with the presumptive Democrat nominee).

On the flip side? His criticism of the Lieutenant Governor’s blanket anti-tax hike pledge was an academic point not worth making. I get what he’s trying to say. Yes; in a hypothetical universe where Trenton significantly cuts the budget AND enacts taxpayer-friendly structural reforms (like attacking road costs and waste in the public school system), then taxes COULD one day need to go up. But does anyone expect significant progress on either front at least before the next redistricting?

New Jersey Republicans and their next party leader need to be unassailable and firm here: No new taxes until Trenton does a better job spending the money we’re already sending it. That’s an attitude MOST of the ’09 Christie coalition can easily rally around. Translation: it’s a winner.

So I’m with the LG on this one.

The LG Camp continues to insist that Ciattarelli’s trumpeted 5-point plan’s restructuring of New Jersey’s income tax brackets will increase taxes by $600 million. Expect that point to continue to be one of the mailbox war’s dominant topics from now until June 6th.

Meanwhile, the LG’s “circuit breaker” tax relief proposal (providing state residents with a property tax credit of up to $3,000) came under withering attack from Ciattarelli as a non-answer.

“Taxpayers do not want to hear excuses,” Ciattarelli said, alleging that Guadagno can’t cover the estimated $1.5 billion yearly cost in a $35 billion budget while adhering to her no-new-taxes pledge. “They do not want to hear promises of tax relief based on fantasy and phantom revenues.”

Ciattarelli’s criticism on this point IS totally fair. Guadagno thinks campaigning on direct relief is the better campaign position and hey, she might ultimately be proven correct, but she hasn’t yet given us a school funding reform plan of her own, and without that important reform, her “circuit breaker” plan could arguably encourage local school boards to raise taxes in anticipation of Trenton subsidies. Anyone with student loan debt knows that subsidies never result in lower obligations. Ever.

The objectively worst answer of the night? If I’m being honest (and I always am, even when I should probably keep my mouth shut)?

When the Lieutenant Governor Guadagno inexplicably declared she’d reverse Chris Christie’s wise 2011 decision and recommit New Jersey to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cap-and-trade carbon tax-style program that helped drive businesses out of New Jersey including Ocean Spray. She also blamed Superstorm Sandy on global warming, a kooky, easily-discredited position which Chris Christie once appropriately savaged a reporter for asserting.

No other single answer caused a spike in my text message volume than those responses from the LG.

My best guess: one of the night’s dominant themes was “Who’s less like Chris Christie?” Ciattarelli repeatedly attempted to tie Guadagno to her boss throughout the evening and, before the debate even began, in a new ad.

“I’ve never seen Jack Ciattarelli in Governor Christie’s office” to complain about policy, Guadagno shot back at one point without blinking. It was one of her better, cleanest hits of the evening. 

However, on the enviro-fringe front, I suspect someone on the LG’s policy team felt environmental issues represented another good opportunity for the LG to get distance from her toxic, unpopular boss. Whoever told her that was painfully wrong. Wrong on the substance and, if GOP turnout matters for anything in November (and it will), a bad miscalculation. What’s more, for someone running as a successful job creator, and there’s plenty of evidence to support some of the hard work she’s done over the last seven years, then supporting a return to the dark, job-destroying days of RGGI undermines that narrative and, in a round-about way, further complicates the difficult task of (1) advocating her record while simultaneously (2) creating distance with Christie.

Please rethink this one, LG, if you’re reading this post.

In the final analysis: “Winning” is a very relative concept, folks. I know you want a winner but it’s more complicated than all that. 

Debates are fun for politicos but rarely decide elections. To the extent they DO make a difference? 2016 was proof positive that “grading” debates is an exercise fraught with peril. Donald Trump said crazy shit for months and won all the same because he presented what a plurality of Republican voters wanted in a counter-point to the Obama years.

If Guadagno really is up by 11-ish points over Jack Ciattatelli? A few albeit objectively disconcerting debate answers, in a debate watched by may a few to several thousands souls out of hundreds of thousands of potential primary voters, probably won’t change that all too much if at all.

With all of that in mind… overall, I’d say the debate was a functional draw. No one landed a death blow. 

Jack Ciattarelli unambiguously had a stronger “by the points” performance on issues ranging from the supreme importance of reforming the school funding formula to discrediting the Left’s blind obsession with “clean” energy policy. I’m not at all sure it’s accurate to say he proved himself to be “more conservative” or certainly more knowledgeable than Guadagno since neither major GOP candidate this cycle is a movement conservative (or anything close), and debating skill isn’t always translatable to governing ability, and what’s more the likability angle is HUGELY important and admittedly the hardest for an ideological nerd like myself to handicap since I could care less. Nevertheless, on Tuesday night, I feel comfortable concluding that Jack Ciattarelli did a perceptively better job of explaining why our Republican solutions are better than the Democrat debate participant’s ideas. The folks I spoke to after the debate — who weren’t on either camps payroll but varied in terms of which way they leaned — were in universal agreement.

As to who would be most different from Chris Christie? We didn’t get to any party-building questions since the questions themselves were geared towards a general audience as opposed to a GOP one. Again, that was a big shame. 

For what it’s worth for you cynics out there, Ciattarelli also had to track right. That’s the tactical component to all of this.

He’s running a bit behind and Guadagno, as the front runner, is clearly already positioning herself as a “centrist” for a general election duel with the far-left extremism of Phil Murphy. There was no room to Guadagno’s left on Tuesday night’s debate stage on almost every issue except for illegal immigration and tax hikes. Her job as the front runner was to avoid making big mistakes and, with the notable exception of her RGGI/Sandy answers which we can expect to feature in the next round of paid Ciattarelli materials, she largely succeeded. 

In that sense? You could argue that Guadagno won by avoiding anything close of a knockout.

We’ve got one more GOP debate coming up this month. Stay tuned…..