If you want to understand the difference between a functioning democracy and Washington, listen to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie: "I wake up every morning knowing that even though I think I'm right," the GOP governor said today, "I'm not going to get everything I want."
In Washington, compromise has become a dirty word. With gridlock the norm, Congress's approval rating is below 10 percent and the public has lost faith in its national leadership. The Republican Party emerged from the November elections with a particularly intense image problem.
Christie, whose approval rating tops 70 percent, acutely analyzed Washington's problem on MSNBC's Morning Joe. He said it's partly structural: Sophisticated redistricting has produced a generation of Democratic and GOP lawmakers whose only worry is appeasing extreme elements in the parties. It's also cultural: For numerous reasons, Republicans and Democrats in Washington no longer put a premium on building relationships.
"This is the place where the president has been the most deficient," Christie said, echoing an analyses I wrote yesterday on Obama's charm deficit.
In his State of the State address on Tuesday, the governor sought to set himself above partisan bickering. He declared New Jersey a model for bipartisanship, which is a bit of a stretch but a politically savvy one to make.
“Maybe the folks in Washington, in both parties, could learn something from our record here,” said Christie, who angered some Republicans by embracing Obama in the immediate aftermath of superstorm Sandy, in the closing days of the presidential campaign.
Standing before a Democratic-controlled Legislature, Christie said, “Let’s put aside accusations and false charges for purely political advantage. Let’s work together to honor the memories of those lost in Sandy. Let’s put the needs of our most victimized citizens ahead of the partisan politics of the day.”
This is not the first time I've written in praise of Christie so I want to make something clear: He is not the perfect leader. His record is middling (the state's unemployment rate, at 9.6 percent, is among the highest in the country). Ideologically, on a national stage, he may be too conservative for moderate voters. And he can be a bully.
But the New Jersey governor is a potential presidential candidate because his rhetoric speaks to the times: Millions of Americans are being left behind by the new economy; they're losing faith in institutions that are suppose to protect them, starting with government; they are empowered, thanks to the Internet and other technologies, unlike any other time in human history to enforce their will on failed institutions; and, finally, Americans want answers to the big unsolved problems including the national debt, gun violence, and climate change.
They want their leaders to lead.
Christie represents the gubernatorial wing of his party that, unlike Republicans in Washington, understands that nothing happens in a democracy unless rivals work to find ways that they can both win. While the GOP in Washington lost the November elections, Republican governors picked up a state capital seat because, Christie said, "we're compromising when we need to."
You see, it's not a dirty word.
UPDATE: This post got me thinking and reporting about leadership in times like these, and led to a longer analysis on Obama's shot at immortality: Read it here.