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Executives, whether Mayor, Governor, President, or CEO, are selected in the hopes that their vision and leadership can move things forward. In the case of elected officials in particular, it is this leadership ability citizens demand and are allowed to voice their opinion on at the ballot box each November.
During Governor Christie's reëlection campaign, the notion of Christie's leadership was little attacked despite, what I believe are a plethora of immense leadership flaws that undermine his ability to effectively perform his executive duties and seriously inhibit policy successes.
Leadership mean many things to many people, so to even hold a conversation about Christie's lack of leadership savvy, it's probably necessary to establish a baseline for good leadership. What it specifically is not, is political savvy. While Christie may be one of the most politically savvy politicians ever, it should not stand in for his lacking leadership skills, and frankly, often times impairs his ability to lead. Christie knows how to turn over a news cycle, knows how to avoid statements that may impede his political aspirations, understands the power of scapegoating others possessing populist distrust (such as teacher unions, or government employee pensions), and controls media access to avoid facing difficult questions on legitimate failures during his tenure.
Follow me below the fold for more on Christie and his lack of leadership ability…
So at a base level, what does anyone expect out of a leader?
Leaders possess an ability to effectively garner support for policy they pursue, but to effectively implement them. In addition, it's safe to say that individuals expect leaders to be held accountable for the actions they take and the positions they hold (at least in a democracy). While reasonable people differ about traits and skills that make a good leader, it is axiomatic that citizens must generally support what a successful leader stands for, which is usually influenced by the leaders ability to garner support through a variety of leadership skills.
Despite the Governor's political aptitude, Christie lacks the qualities of a good leader. But despite this truth, no one, not his political opponents, not the NJ Legislature, not the media, no one, has called him out on this obvious point. And because no one challenges this concept, we get polls that find at least 50% of voters convinced that Christie is a strong leader. This makes little sense when similar polls find that NJ voters disagree with Christie on just about everything. They disapprove of his actions on pensions, the budget, taxes, the economy, and jobs. They also disagree with him on most social issues such as gay marriage and abortion. The lack of a real challenge to his record makes Christie's carefully constructed narrative using political savvy in lieu of true leadership even easier to make and easier to sell to New Jersey.
In fact, I would argue that Governor Christie's popular image would not exist if it weren't for Hurricane Sandy and the rallying unity and New Jersey pride that ensued afterwards. While Governor Christie was never hugely unpopular (likely an affect of his larger-than-life personality and shoot-from-the-hip attitude that caters to Americans' cowboy mythology), his approval rating was often below 50% until Superstorm Sandy's devistation led to approval numbers in the 60, 70, and even 80% range.
The irony of Christie's supposed ability to lead after serious non-partisan devistation is that his all-hands-on-deck approach to natural disasters is a response to his embarrassing leadership failings early in his tenure in response to the 2011 Blizzard. Instead of returning early from his Disney World trip early to respond to the electrical outings, residents being trapped in their homes, and days of unplowed streets, he let acting-Governor Senate President Sweeney manage the fallout. It turned into a public relations issue for the Governor, but perhaps not too big of one. As Ken Hunter, President of NJ's Public Relations Society of America, pointed out, "a week from now nobody will even remember any of this."
The one lesson to take away from Christie's tenure is that policy failings don't worry the Governor's Office unless it turns into a public relations failure. As a result, Christie has taken a must harder line in any natural disaster since, preemptively delcaring States of Emergencies, even when neighboring states did not. Despite his early failing learning from it is admirable, even if he refused to admit his actions during the blizzard were a mistake and failed to apologize. The same cannot be said of other policy decisions that have led to undesired results.
Most troubling to Christie's self-tailored narrative as a strong leader is his recent trend of not answering or flat out avoiding questions that true leaders would make. The Governor's classic response to avoiding hard questions is that any hard question is a blindly partisan attempt to undermine his political future. But so what if they are? Real leaders answer difficult questions and are able to generate support of even less popular ideas. First term Christie might even learn something from Presidential-ambitious Christie. One of Christie's early victories was found in reforming the pension system in New Jersey and cutting some popular programs from the budget, both politically difficult things to do. But he didn't shy away from them despite the nightmares they've turned into today. That's just it though. Leadership is about leading, not concerns about the hit to your political ambitions caused by your failings.
The only way to correct the narrative of "Christie The Governor™" is to hold him accountable by questioning him. Conveniently, he's usually outside New Jersey, laying the groundwork for his all-but-announced Presidential run. If he's outside of the State attending to matters and producing headlines of national concern, he should be able to demonstrate his leadership ability by answering questions of national and State concern. Allowing elected officials to avoid questioning and public accountability for their policy views is a trend we've allowed politicians to exploit for too long. It'd be better for American Democracy and public discourse if the media chose not to cover a politician on a topic unless the media were permitted to truly answer questions on it.
Some questions I'd like to see Christie answer:
- How can you claim your fiscal decisions have been a success when New Jersey trails by nearly all metrics (job growth, unemployment, economic growth) than neighboring states, many who have taken different routes on fiscal policy than you have?
- You made claims that the Affordable Care Act was not sustainable and bound to fail as justification for not establishing a State-run exchange. With evidence suggesting healthcare cost increases are slowing or even declining and more individuals covered, would you be willing to establish a State-run exchange if the opportunity existed today?
- Your response to natural disaters have become an important part of your Governorship and it appears that major natural weather events are becoming more common. Do you agree with the overwhelming majority of scientists who believe that human acts have played a major part in affecting the Earth's homeostasis leading to these events? Why? And if not, why do you have the ability to take advice from policy advisers with area expertise but are unable to take the advice of scientists with expertise on the climate?
- Immigration is an issue of concern to all Governors in the nation as it has an notable effect on a state's economy. NJ in particular is affected by immigration issues. What advice would you give to the President to improve the immigration issue?
- Consistent with international treaties and conventions the United States is a signatory to, torture is not permissible. Since 2009, the United States has reinforced these agreements specifying that torture is not an acceptable method of interrogation, even against enemy combatants. Many members of your party seem intent on justifying or even bringing back these acts if given the chance. You, criticized torture as U.S. Attorney back in 2002. Do you still believe torturing assists terrorist recruitment domestically and abroad and do you believe the acts taken in the previous administration is against international and domestic law?
- Do you believe America's drone program similarly presents unintended risks to America and indiscriminately harm bystanders?
- Do you believe that the ongoing acts in Syria and Lebonon potentially endanger the citizens of your State on a daily basis? Do you believe the United States should be involved in the ISIL issue there?
- Do you agree that a resident in your state should be denied healthcare coverage related to contraceptives and other treatment that their employee may disagree with on a religious basis?
- NJ has strict election laws that seem to be quickly disappearing at the National level. Does the ability to donate unlimited funds in elections create negative consequences for our democracy?
- Do you believe the protections against discrimination within the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are still needed today and do you support state law changes that affect voting access or make it more difficult to vote?
- The police serve an important role in enforcement of our laws within the State. However, some believe that the system currently does not possess the oversight necessary in order to ensure the safety of all citizens and prevent abuse of powers. What steps would you, as Governor, be willing to take in order to avoid the political backlashes and racial tensions existing in several other states as a result of certain groups perceiving police abuses as discriminatory in nature?
- Back in December of last year, you promised to cooperate with the George Washington Bridge closure investigation. Since then, the Legislature's report suggests that you haven't turned over all documents leading to several major holes and questions as to the contents of certain discussions that have not been disclosed. Why have you changed your stance in your cooperation in this matter to ensure tranparency to your citizens and demonstrate your non-involvement in this matter?
Christie ran on a promise of being a straight talker and it was this promise of real leadership that got many excited back in 2009. In fact, he famously said (and even released this quote in a Press Release),
"This is who I am. Like it or not, you guys are stuck with me for four years and I'm going to say things directly. When you ask me questions, I'm going to answer them directly, straightly, bluntly and nobody in New Jersey is going to have to wonder where I am on an issue — and I think they've had enough of politicians who make them wonder. I came here to govern, not to worry about re-election. I came here to do what people sent me here to do, and so 'blunt,' 'direct'? Maybe you might say 'honest and refreshing.' Maybe we could see that in your paper tomorrow."
…Or perhaps we should first be asking Governor Christie, What happened to that promise of a real leader?
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