Beyond the Soundbite: Putting Final Gubernatorial Debate in Perspective

NJ Spotlight | October 16, 2013 | More Issues, Politics
A give-and-take discussion about what the governor and challenger said and what it says about them

debate panel
We gathered a few of our contributors online last night to gauge their reactions to the second and final debate between Republican Gov. Chris Christie and his Democratic challenger, state Sen. Barbara Buono. Some of them are old hands at statewide politics:

  • Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.
  • Dick Zimmer served in the New Jersey State Assembly and Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. He was twice the nominee of the New Jersey Republican Party for the U.S. Senate.
  • Jim McQueeny is a political analyst and a former reporter and chief of staff and spokesman for U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg.
  • Bill Potter is an attorney in private practice who specializes in representing clean-energy providers.
  • Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also blogs about New Jersey education policy and politics at NJLeftBehind@blogspot.com.
  • Mark Magyar, who moderated this discussion, teaches labor studies at Rutgers University. A veteran Statehouse reporter, he served as deputy policy chief in the Whitman administration and as director of policy for the independent Daggett for Governor campaign.
  • Mark Magyar: What were your overall impressions of the debate? Were there any game-changing moments or any lines we will see show up in future campaign ads?

    Carl Golden: Buono was considerably more forceful than she was last week. It almost seems as though she was goading Christie into having a “Christie moment.”

    Bill Potter: We heard over and over that Gov. Christie is proud of his first term, but we never heard what he wants to do in a second term.

    Laura Waters: He did speak about civil service reform and municipal consolidation.

    Dick Zimmer: I think she was more self-confident than in her first big-time televised debate, but still wasn’t a match for Christie.

    Carl Golden: I should add there were no game-changing moments but, having been through a fair amount of these events, there never are any such moments.

    Bill Potter: She was strong and well informed, easily overshadowing Gov. Christie’s triumphalism on display

    Carl Golden: I thought Buono’s use of the bossism issue was striking. She mentioned the names Norcross and DiVincenzo and suggested these were backroom types with whom Christie had made a grand bargain.

    Mark Magyar: This is the second time we’ve seen a kinder, gentler Christie. In fact, he almost seemed less forceful this week than last week. Would you agree?

    Carl Golden: Christie showed again how very adept he is at deflecting questions he doesn’t wish to answer. He spends a few second giving something of a response then goes directly back to his messages.

    Mark Magyar: Let’s take some time discussing Carl’s point. What did you think of Buono’s attack on Norcross and DiVincenzo, and just as striking, Christie’s strong defense of DiVincenzo. How did you think that played?

    Bill Potter: He gets points for obfuscation not for substance

    Laura Waters: I don’t think it was Christie’s strongest moment, and he merely reinforced Buono’s emphasis on “Boardwalk Empire” Jersey-backroom politics.

    Bill Potter: He parried it well but the point was not rebutted that bossism is back.

    Carl Golden: There is a case to be made that Buono should have taken this line of attack earlier in her campaign. We all know how little support she’s received from party leaders, so there was really nothing for her to lose to make bossism an issue.

    Laura Waters: And Christie managed to underline Buono’s isolation from the mainline Dems.

    Bill Potter: Bosses are not mainline Dems!

    Mark Magyar: How do you think this line of attack would have played if she had made it a centerpiece of her campaign?

    Laura Waters: A missed opportunity for her.

    Dick Zimmer: Christie wasn’t defending Joe D. as much as he was talking up bipartisanship, surely the most frequently used word in the debate.

    Bill Potter: I agree but she is making the point now with fervor.

    Carl Golden: I continue to believe the centerpiece of her campaign should have been property taxes, jobs, economy — all these interrelated issues that Christie enjoys less than 50 percent support. Bossism could be tied in by making a case the bipartisanship he talks about so proudly comes from his alliances and accommodations with Democrat leaders.

    Bill Potter: What’s bipartisan about vetoing gay marriage and gun control and minimum wage?

    Laura Waters: I agree. And I found it interesting that, certainly in the education realm, the focus was entirely on economics of education instead of content of reform.

    Dick Zimmer: I agree. She recited compelling statistics in both debates, but didn’t pound the issue home.

    Bill Potter: Dick you’re talking cosmetics again.

    [page]

    Mark Magyar: Let’s talk about property taxes and the economy. All I heard tonight from Buono in terms of job creation was more loans to small businesses, and on property taxes that she would get $700 million from a millionaire’s tax. Was I missing something?

    Bill Potter: Any shift to taxes based on ability to pay is a shift in the right direction

    Carl Golden: The governor’s point about small property tax increases resonates with many voters. There is still great discontent out there, but he benefits from news coverage describing the increases as the smallest in 20 years. It’s difficult to refute that effectively when the issue is so diffuse, fluctuating wildly from town to town. He benefited greatly by using statewide averages.

    Laura Waters: And the 2 percent cap triumph.

    Jim McQueeny: She had started on the right path about small businesses being a driver of the state’s economy, a sentimental and financial fact, but drifted off to agency acronyms and state budget blather that left you scratching your head. Christie was simple and definitive, like he was speaking to a jury box, not the panel of reporters

    Mark Magyar: Let’s talk about Christie’s two promises for his second term — to eliminate sick leave payouts for retirees and reform civil service to make it easier for towns to merge or combine services. Would either of those two changes make much of a difference in property taxes overall?

    Carl Golden: Both seem to enjoy considerable support — outside the Legislature, that is. People get angry, indeed, when they see high-six-figure payouts to police or other municipal officials

    .

    Laura Waters: Both probably nonstarters, certainly the latter, but hypothetically consolidation would lower, at least a little, the tax burdens.

    Bill Potter: In my view, these were trivial digressions from real reform, which requires substitution of income tax for prop taxes

    Laura Waters: Even consolidation? Do you think that’s trivial?

    Bill Potter: If it’s left to local discretion it won’t happen except in Princeton after 20 years of trying

    Carl Golden: As a practical matter, these “trivial digressions” are about the best you’re going to get. The Legislature has made it clear there is no political will to overhaul the system to the extent you’d like. They can’t even agree to set up a constitutional convention to deal with it.

    Laura Waters: I agree. But it’s still the heart of a lot of Jersey’s problems.

    Carl Golden: It’s the heart and every other bodily organ.

    Jim McQueeny: Christie’s definitive statement (on excessive sick-pay payouts and civil service reform) is why he was winning, and won, this debate (Though Buono was better than in the first debate, which isn’t saying much really.) She parsed who is responsible for the local government part vs. the state part vs. the civil service part. Voters and New Jerseyans don’t distinguish it that way. Christie said “I will end it.” Period. Point. Score.

    Bill Potter: It’s all trivial as long as property tax is the prime source of funding for public education.

    Carl Golden: Shared services has barely gotten off the ground. Consolidation will never occur to the extent that substantial property tax reductions are possible.

    Bill Potter: I agree with Carl.

    Laura Waters: Back to the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), Buono’s pet. I don’t think that played out well for her tonight. No one even knows what SFRA is.

    Bill Potter: What is it?

    Carl Golden: She does suffer somewhat from “Trenton speak.”

    Laura Waters: It is supposed to direct state aid by child instead of zip code.
    It’s never been fully funded.

    Carl Golden: The school funding issue is more than 40 years old. I’m old enough to remember when Bill Cahill was sued over the funding formula. It’s never been solved by the Legislature; it’s been administered by the courts for four decades. And they won’t admit it, but many legislators like it like that — they’re off the hook.

    Bill Potter: But she won (this debate) handily on the issues.

    Laura Waters: And that’s why she is frustrating to watch: She doesn’t seem to realize it.

    [page]

    Mark Magyar: When I interviewed Bill Palatucci after last week’s debate, he was most pleased that Buono did not say she would take back any of the 154 tax and fee increases Christie pointed to. She did the same this week. Does her response, “It’s a matter of who pays,” work or does it reinforce the tax-and-spend Democrat image Christie’s ads are trying to create.

    Bill Potter: CC raided the clean energy fund for $900 million, isn’t that a tax increase?

    Dick Zimmer: If raiding a trust fund counted as a tax increase, Barbara Buono would have a score of more than 154. Every Legislature raids trusts funds — unless they are protected by the Constitution.

    Mark Magyar: So what did you think of Buono’s response on Christie’s 154 tax question?

    Bill Potter: It was more evasion and fluff.

    Dick Zimmer: It’s an impossible question to answer. That’s why Christie asked it twice.

    Carl Golden: Her response was fairly weak. Not sure how she could rebut it effectively without becoming bogged down in discussing each one, that’s even more dangerous.

    Jim McQueeny: Or (getting bogged down as she did when using terms the audience doesn’t follow such as) “Reggi” or “ACA” or “David and Richard” or “Market Street and Cooper Street” or the hippy-dippy spiraling about global warming.

    Frankly, all the things she referenced were either in isolation or hinged to whatever point she was making. Sorry, but debates (as Christie showed) are not about being the master of detail; its about making points that are simply north or south, up or down, left or right, with the space in between entered into at your own peril. Even the myopic detail of THIS discussion has no bearing on who won or didn’t tonight. Detail is the devil of debates like this. Christie crushed in that regard.

    Buono gave no cause for pause about Christie. Polls from this point will harden till the end to what they are now pretty much.

    Mark Magyar: So did Buono’s debate prep fail her?

    Laura Waters: She can’t compete with the largesse of Christie’s personality and connection with the audience. I don’t know how debate prep mitigates that.

    Mark Magyar: Or is it just that governors are so much better prepared after four years of press conferences and town hall meetings to parry questions?

    Bill Potter: She kept it simple on the core point of her campaign; she’s for the underdogs, but let’s not fault her for being brainy

    Carl Golden: Debates are the enemy of coherent policy.

    Laura Waters: I don’t think she comes off as “brainy.”

    Bill Potter: It’s a compliment.

    Mark Magyar: But doesn’t Christie have a coherent policy world-view going for him?

    Carl Golden: He has a record he can point to and drive his message in 60 seconds or less. In a debate setting, that’s really all that matters.

    Bill Potter: His world view appears to be limited to pleasing the right wing core without going all out in this blue state.

    Jim McQueeny: She was (to me) the classic victim the first time of overprep, freezing a naturalness that came through slightly better this time. She had a few roundhouse comebacks this time, though, but Christie parried them aside pretty much. Except for the women’s care budget cut where he got clipped. Mike Schneider called the debate a 15-round prize fight. Buono was more like a guest sparring partner put into Christie’s training camp for him.

    Carl Golden: (His policy world-view) is a balancing act for him and, I must admit, he’s doing pretty damn well at it.

    [page]

    Bill Potter: His views on Sandy showed his straddle, one foot in the grace of fed government help the other in Lonegan’s camp of tea partiers

    Laura Waters: Buono hammers on the woes of the working poor at the same time as she proposes profligate programs (like $3 billion extra for education). I think the voters know that there’s a central contradiction to her policies and that it all can’t be solved with a millionaire’s tax.

    Bill Potter: Three billion dollars spread over four years is not profligate.

    Mark Magyar: How do you think Christie’s ardent defense of Obama on Sandy played in NJ and to the national audience that watched on C-Span?

    Laura Waters: Christie’s killing it in Jersey. I have a harder time seeing him compete on the national stage.

    Mark Magyar: Why, Laura, if he’s such a skilled debater — as McQueeny, a Democrat, has been arguing?

    Carl Golden: Playing at the national level is a damn sight more difficult and pressure-filled than shaking hands at a diner in Woodbridge.

    Laura Waters: Christie is SO Jersey: bombastic, boisterous, almost cartoonish. He’s Asbury Park Live. I’m not sure Americans want Snooki for president.
    I’m being glib. But he’s too blue for the national GOP. Jersey isn’t Texas.

    Bill Potter: That is a cartoonish caricature of NJ.

    Dick Zimmer: You are a self-hating New Jerseyan.

    Laura Waters: Nah. I love Jersey.

    Carl Golden: Don’t look now, but the caricature is at 60-plus points in the polls and headed toward a 20-plus point victory in three weeks.

    Dick Zimmer: Just look at all the issues where Christie disagreed with Lonegan’s positions tonight: Sandy, climate change, the shutdown, minimum wage, Medicaid expansion, bragging about high levels of education aid, the Dream Act.

    Mark Magyar: How do you think Buono’s attacks on Christie as already preparing to run for president played? Did she make her point? I thought “is governing NJ walking or chewing gum?” was one of her better lines. And what do these debates say about why Christie when he is still 20 points up in the polls — or 30, if you believe the outliers?

    Bill Potter: It’s because the Democratic party hierarchy, i.e., bosses like DiVincenzo allied with Christie and undermined Buono before she got started

    Jim McQueeny: Anything on Sandy, Christie wins. No matter what he says really. Buono should have stayed away from that, gone back into the theme of her getting food stamps (I didn’t know that.), working her way through college, beating the John Lynch bosses, and fighting on “your side” in this uneven economic recovery in NJ. And lasered more into Christie’s GOP DC Tea Party buddies he helped get there.

    How can you have it both ways? One way is to protect your path to the Presidency through Iowa, favoring them and cowtowing to the NRA, and taking Medicaid expansion while slamming “big government.”

    Carl Golden: The party bosses are a part of the problem, but by no means the entire problem. Her campaign has been without a coherent message that voters can relate to. He, on the other hand, delivers a message with all the subtlety of a smack in the molars. Disagree or not, he’s an infinitely better campaigner than she.

    Laura Waters: I agree.

    [page]

    Jim McQueeny: To Mark’s point: Christie on Sandy vis a vis Obama would be viewed as sincere yet transactional, good partners in politics. Obama delivered and kept his word, Christie was saying. People give them both credit for that. So, good.

    Mark Magyar: What did you think of Christie’s answer on what he would say if one of his children said he or she was gay? Tough question, good answer?

    Laura Waters: He was so obviously trying to placate both sides of the aisle. What’s interesting is that he’s so transparent and nobody cares.

    Carl Golden: He handled it as well as anyone could have.

    Dick Zimmer: Given Christie’s position, it’s the only answer.

    Bill Potter: Good answer, but it evaded the issue of same-sex marriage being a civil right under the 14th amendment, which shouldn’t be subject to popular vote any more than other minority rights

    Jim McQueeny: Good and revealing question by Brigid (Harrison of Montclair State University) frankly. I didn’t know Buono had a gay daughter. Christie’s answer was parental enough. Buono’s opportunity to speak after him she passed on. Looked like she was reluctant to talk about it.

    Dick Zimmer: In contrast with the first debate.

    Carl Golden: Does anyone seriously believe the issue of same-sex marriage will turn this election? It is important, without a doubt, but vast numbers of voters are not about to desert either Christie or Buono over their positions on it.

    Laura Waters: But I don’t think it tripped Christie up. He’s so far ahead of Buono that he’s flying.

    Bill Potter: Back to Laura’s point that he is so transparent but nobody cares, what does this say about modern electioneering?

    Mark Magyar: Do you think the Kim Guadagno question (regarding the fact that she is totally unknown) raised any questions in voters’ minds about just who would be taking over if Christie leaves to run for president?

    Bill Potter: No.

    Laura Waters: No.

    Carl Golden: Not a bit.

    Bill Potter: Why no questions about Christie’s rollbacks on environmental protection?

    Carl Golden: The Democrats gave up on 2013 months ago. They are content to either wait until 2017 when the seat is open or hope Christie bails out to run for president, leaving the office to Guadagno who is a far less formidable casndidate and personality.

    Jim McQueeny: Lautenberg used to say about every election he was in (and he won them all) that in NJ voters need to get and keep a “rooting interest” in you as a candidate or an incumbent. Tough to get, harder to keep, but slow to lose when you get it. Christie has it, Buono doesn’t.

    Bill Potter: Who would make the better governor policywise? Buono in a heartbeat

    Mark Magyar: Tonight’s debate was watched undoubtedly by a much smaller audience than watched ABC last week. Tomorrow is the Senate election, which will dominate the headlines for a couple days, then we have two-and-a-half weeks until Election Day. Anything Buono can do to win it? Anything Christie can do to lose it? Especially considering the difference in money the rest of the way?

    Carl Golden: That great 21st century philosopher Willie Nelson said it best: “Turn out the lights, the party’s over.”