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An ongoing discussion about conservatism in New Jersey.
The $400 million sheet of paper
Peter C. Hansen  (August 26, 2010, 11:40 am)

While the Democrats and the teachers union are "piling on" Gov. Christie for allegedly whiffing on Race to the Top funds, this is not only unlikely to harm Gov. Christie with average folks, it will likely be to his long-term benefit. Why? It comes down to basic management and basic politics. First, Christie publicly protected the people in the Department of Education who screwed up, like a great boss should. Second, Christie can wave that single sheet of paper like a bloody shirt whenever people get mad about lost education funds. He can say, quite rightly, that a union-friendly, Democratic administration down in DC made every man, woman and child in New Jersey pay an extra $50 over a single sheet of paper. (That's $200 per four-person family.) In an age where DC churns out 2,000-page, "you gotta pass it to learn what's in it" bills, no one is going to accept being disqualified by DC for $400 million over a single sheet of paper. Enormously more likely is that New Jerseyans will see themselves as pawns in a game by Obama to embarrass their rising reformist governor. Using what amounts to sanctions against NJ's population is a very poor hand for DC and NJ Democrats to play.

On the management side, the politics are absolutely in Gov. Christie's favor. Christie ran as an anti-bureaucrat Republican. Yet, when one of those bureaucrats made a costly mistake, he didn't take the easy opportunity to scapegoat that person, or tar the whole Department of Education. Instead, he publicly assumed full responsibility and refused even to name the person (apparently known) who was responsible. This shows that he puts good management above partisan game-playing. In a chief executive, that's the best way to inspire loyalty in your troops and raise your public standing. He has made people feel safe, and he has lowered the political temperature with the civil service. He has also immunized himself against complaints by the Democrats and the teacher's unions. Indeed, he has made them argue against themselves. Would they really prefer that Christie take down the bureaucrats and bureaucracies that made the errors? Do they really believe that government employees should be held to the most rigorous and unforgiving standards of competence? These are not lines of argument that NJ Democrats naturally espouse, to say the least. In attacking Christie on this ground for a news cycle, they open themselves up to endless replays of their demands for government competence. Not a great trade-off.

This brings us to the political side, which again favors Christie. To blame him, one has to argue that NJ deserved to lose $400 million because of a single sheet of paper. One has to dismiss the fact that the data on that sheet were available on the Internet, and that the state (via Mr. Schundler) tried to correct the error in person down in Washington. In effect, one has to argue that a single, small error is so unforgivable, so irremediable, that Washington has to lower the boom and fine everyone in New Jersey $50. That is not a great argument to make to people having to pay the $50. What it really suggests is willful blindness on the part of the Obama Administration, and a spiteful, picayune way to harm its perceived enemy, Gov. Christie. The fact that NJ is a union-blue state that voted for Obama is not enough to save its people from the wrath of the Obama Administration. Rather than conciliate the people who voted for him by graciously working with NJ to correct a minor clerical error, Obama let his Department of Education hit NJ with what amounts to collective punishment. And why? For the temerity of voting in a Republican governor and giving Fox News something to crow about.

A single sheet of paper can't be a fig leaf for the federal government.

Finally, there is the union angle, which makes no sense at all. How does this $400 million loss present NJ Democrats and the teachers union in a positive light? Does it reveal them to be supernaturally able to compile 1,000-page applications without ever making mistakes? Does a clerical error by a state bureaucrat prove the infallibility of state bureaucracies? Quite the contrary. Finally, how does having DC slapping down the state over a tiny technicality demonstrate in any way the merits or wisdom of union-dominated public education systems? Answer: it doesn't. The only lesson which the unions and their Democratic allies can make here is the old thuggish one – don't stand in our way, or we will make life difficult for you. This is a lousy hand to play at a time when the NJ teachers union is being publicly reviled and revealed as one of the great millstones around NJ's neck. Still, if that's how they want to play it, then by all means they should do so. Let the public decide ... as they face higher tax bills courtesy of Washington.