Remember the old “Mission Impossible” TV series? The one where Mr. Phelps received his instructions via a tape recording that ended with “This tape will self-destruct in fifteen seconds,” followed by a hiss and a puff of smoke.
That warning has become a metaphor for the New Jersey Democratic Party. The state’s political establishment has been looking on for weeks now in amusement or in horror as the party self-destructs in a puff of smoke.
The party’s presumptive gubernatorial nominee, Middlesex County state Sen. Barbara Buono, has endured months of sniping and snide comments from various party leaders, but the unkindest cut of all may have occurred last week when former Gov. Brendan Byrne suggested she consider abandoning the race entirely.
Byrne, who 36 years ago became the last Democrat elected to a second term as governor, worried aloud that Buono faced an Election Day blowout at the hands of Gov. Chris Christie, one so overwhelming that it would jeopardize the party’s control of the Legislature.
Coming from someone who enjoys elder-statesman status, Byrne’s comments attracted attention and fed into the ongoing narrative that party leaders have decided to cut Buono loose and devote their resources -- organizational and financial -- to maintaining their majorities in the Legislature.
There is, however, a crucial difference between the former governor’s musings and the frequent potshots taken by notables such as Senate President Steve Sweeney of Gloucester County and Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo.
While Byrne reflected the realpolitik of the moment, Sweeney, DiVincenzo and assorted county leaders are coming across as openly rooting for a Christie victory. Rumors persist that DiVincenzo is contemplating an endorsement of Christie, joining a handful of Democratic mayors who have done so. Sweeney, meanwhile, has led the charge against Buono’s selection of Hudson County Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell as the next Democratic state chairman. Tradition has it that the party’s gubernatorial nominee is granted the authority to make the selection and have it ratified by the committee as a whole.
The Senate president and the Essex executive seem quite comfortable with the prospect of a Christie re-election. Neither has displayed any sign of concern over the party’s potential self-destruction or by the growing perception that they’ve not only abandoned the party’s gubernatorial nominee but are actively undermining her candidacy.
Both appear willing to concede a second term to Christie and allow subsequent events to play out, convinced they will ultimately benefit.
For instance, if Christie -- coming off a landslide this November -- decides to use his victory to vault into the 2016 Republican contest for the presidential nomination, it’s likely he’ll step down before his term expires in 2017 to devote his efforts toward securing that goal.
In that event, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno will serve the remainder of the term and, in the Democratic view, will be a far less formidable candidate should she decide to seek the office. If Christie chooses to forego a national run, Democrats are content to await 2017 when the office will be open and their chances greatly enhanced. Moreover, a convincing defeat for Buono this year effectively removes her from any consideration as the potential nominee in four years.
Sweeney, DiVincenzo, and those who share their view appear willing to risk what they believe to be a short-term fracturing of the party to return in four years stronger, more unified, and in a commanding position to win the governor’s office.
Buono, in the meantime, continues to struggle with broadening her name recognition and overcoming a disappointing fund-raising effort. While she’s made up a small amount of ground in early polling, she trails Christie by upward of 30 points.
She has maintained a remarkable equanimity -- publicly at least -- in the face of the criticism from party leaders and has stuck pretty much to her campaign theme that Christie’s policies have punished the middle class, made the state less affordable for them, and protected the wealthy.
She displayed a flash of anger, though, by digging in her heels over her selection of O’Donnell as state chairman despite the oft-voiced opposition, primarily from Sweeney, that he is a poor choice. It’s been suggested that some of the criticism of O’Donnell has roots in the fear that he -- rather than legislative and county leaders -- will control allocating funds to the party’s candidates.
Odds are that Buono will win the battle over O’Donnell, but it’s just as certain that the ill will the fight has produced will go on. A rejection of O’Donnell, however, would be a hammer blow to Buono, with Sweeney’s hand gripping the hammer.
Fans of “Mission Impossible” may also recall that the taped message to Mr. Phelps warns that if he or any of his associates are caught or captured, they’ll be immediately disavowed.
Sweeney, DiVincenzo, et al., though, don’t seem to mind being caught. They’re convinced that any self destruction is temporary at best and they’ll win in the long run.