New Jerseyans aren’t always civil, but it’s still possible for a liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican to have a rational and pleasant conversation about politics in the state. Dan Bryan is a former senior advisor to Gov. Phil Murphy and now the owner of his own public affairs firm, and Alex Wilkes is an attorney and former executive director of America Rising PAC who advises Republican candidates in New Jersey and across the nation. Dan and Alex are both experienced strategists who are currently in the room where high level decisions are made. They will get together every week with New Jersey Globe editor David Wildstein to discuss politics and issues.
Question: Governor Murphy announced an outside review of New Jersey’s response to the pandemic this week, which is set to conclude in late 2023. Was it reasonable for it to take so long? What should the state be looking for out of this review?
Alex: Governor Murphy has been dragging his feet on this review because he knows his record has been completely abysmal.
Shortly before the midterm elections, Murphy told NJ Advance in reference to the long-sought review: “It’ll be soon.” This week, we not only found out that the review hasn’t even started, but we also learned that New Jersey voters will not have a chance to evaluate its findings ahead of the 2023 legislative elections.
This is a critical point. After all, it was the legislature that sat on its hands as Murphy kept children out of school and crushed small businesses. In 2021, voters had their first opportunity to voice their opposition to these policies, and if dethroning the Senate President didn’t scare Democrats, the 2023 elections sure should.
The bottom line: the devastating effects of learning loss and social isolation are now indisputable, and similarly situated states to New Jersey simply handled it better. Murphy and the Democrats’ cavalier “don’t give a damn about the constitution” attitude just looks worse with every day that passes.
Dan: While Republicans in the Legislature busied themselves with criticizing everything Governor Murphy did throughout the onslaught of COVID-19, the Governor and his administration led the way nationally responding to an unprecedented pandemic and saving the lives of as many New Jerseyans as possible. The decisions he made were based on facts and science, not politics. New Jersey residents stood with the Governor’s response throughout the pandemic, and they still give him high grades on his response today.
Not to bring up any pesky facts here, but let’s remember that the Governor already conducted an outside review of the Administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in nursing homes. That review, the Manatt report, was sober, apolitical, and substantive. Many of its recommendations were adapted by the Legislature and quickly implemented.
Is this the right time to take a full look at the pandemic and how we can better prepare ourselves in the future? Yes, it is. And I have no doubt that this review will be just as substantive, apolitical, and actionable as the initial review from June of 2020. But I also have no doubt that New Jersey Republicans will do what they’ve always done throughout this pandemic: criticize and name-call, while offering no substantive vision of their own. Maybe that’s why in 2021, in one of the best electoral cycles for their party in a generation, they came away with nothing.
Question: Looking toward 2024, is a rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump in the best interests of the nation and of the two major political parties?
Dan: President Biden has made a successful career out of being underestimated. Democrats overperformed in the midterms, and the President owns that just as much as he’d own an underperformance. And in addition to that electoral success, he and his administration have had tremendous policy successes. If President Biden runs for reelection, he deserves full support from his party.
For the sake of our country, our democracy, and for the future of the Republican party, I truly hope we don’t see Donald Trump as the 2024 Republican nominee. We’ll soon see if the fever has finally broken.
Alex: Ultimately, it will be primary voters who decide – and with some bipartisan talk of moving New Jersey up the list – we may get to have a real say!
There is, however, palpable excitement on the Republican side about some of the up-and-coming players, who bring rich experiences and records of success to the table. Contests are good for the party and, ultimately, good for the country. Count me among those looking forward to it.
I can’t say the same about our friends on the left, who only have some truly regrettable options like Phil Murphy and Gavin Newsom, should Biden not run. I wish them nothing but the very best as they attempt to explain to voters in non-coastal states their plans to take away their gas-powered vehicles!
Dan: We agree that moving New Jersey up in the primary calendar would be huge for our state. But I haven’t yet heard what New Jersey Republicans will do if Donald Trump starts winning primaries again. Will they stand their ground and refuse to support him, or quickly fold and form rank behind him the way they did in 2016?
Question: Now that we all have the benefit of seeing the results of the mid-term election, was the New Jersey congressional map gerrymandered?
Alex: Without a doubt. Republicans won 47% of the vote statewide, and yet, voters will only be represented by a Republican in a quarter of the state’s allotted congressional seats.
The whole process was a disgrace. From Sam Wang and the (aptly named) Princeton Gerrymandering Project’s manipulation of data to former Justice Wallace’s absurd reasoning, New Jersey voters were completely let down by these so-called public servants.
Dan: Funny, I don’t remember Republicans complaining much after their map was chosen in 2010 using the exact same process. Look, our redistricting process is better than in most states, but like any redistricting process, it is imperfect. I think the fact that Republicans failed to field serious candidates in most districts did more to hurt their chances than the map did.
New Jersey Democrats won three of the four competitive congressional districts in New Jersey in these midterms. The GOP has the same problem here as they do nationally: they need to play to the hardcore extremists on the right without alienating moderates.
New Jersey is a blue state, but it’s also a moderate state, and candidates can’t get cute when talking about healthcare, reproductive freedom, or Trump’s Big Lie. The problem Republicans will continue to have in New Jersey is that any clear stance on those issues will either infuriate the far-right or alienate moderates.
Question: As two people who get paid to tell government officials and candidates how to interact with the public, what’s your take on the state of the media in New Jersey and nationally?
Dan: New Jersey has plenty of quality journalists that work hard and do a great job. Unfortunately, due largely to corporate greed and a failure to adapt, many newsrooms in our state have been gutted. Regional outlets in New York and Philadelphia now cover our state as an afterthought, if at all. It seems to me like there’s less media covering New Jersey every day.
But recently, we’ve seen some promise in two areas: local digital reporting (websites like my local news source, The Village Green, and the various TapIntos) and nonprofit journalism (NJ PBS and New Jersey Monitor). There’s no question that a more vital media ecosphere would make a healthier political ecosphere in New Jersey, but we’ve got a long way to go to get there.
Alex: I live in Bergen County – a place that has more people than some states in this country – and there is basically one newspaper with not nearly enough resources to cover 70 diverse municipalities. One million people, a fraction of the coverage: that basically sums up the state of the media here.
There are many complex reasons why traditional media struggle both nationally and locally. I’ll offer one thought for New Jersey: with congressional map drawers, off-year elections, and other incumbent-friendly measures that essentially favor one party, our state takes itself out of the marketplace for hungry reporters who are eager to make a name for themselves. Think about all of the reporters who have since moved on to national outlets after cutting their teeth covering the Christie Administration. Now we need the sunshine more than ever. Perhaps that might be the only upside of a future-failed Murphy presidential run!
With that said, we do have some truly dedicated journalists, and particularly reporters at local outlets like Patch, Tapinto, and Daily Voice, who have done an incredible job shining a light on important issues like Murphy’s controversial school curriculum changes and the sharp increase in crime and car thefts.