By Arun Ayyagari
Before discussing the second gubernatorial debate from Oct. 12, it is not just precursory but imperative to understand the performances on each side of the first debate.
Ever since Jack Ciattarelli gave a memorable performance on his first gubernatorial debate in any general election for governor of New Jersey, media started to take him seriously, including his opponent Phil Murphy who discounted Mr. Ciattarelli’s abilities and rising popularity.
This rising popularity of Mr. Ciattarelli is reflected in the increasingly growing number of attack ads from the Murphy campaign which might have been a victim of a frisson of fear.
Although Gov. Murphy managed to answer questions, several statements and attacks on Mr. Ciattarelli went against the governor. Notable amongst them was his popularly unpopular statement on taxes, “If taxes are your issue, New Jersey is probably not your state.” Mr. Murphy cleverly amended (theoretically) or contradicted (pragmatically) his statement by adding a clause “for millionaires”.
Attaching riders to prior assertions in a live debate neither scores brownie points with the electorate nor does it make one look like an ethical politician. Issue of character is increasingly important because the rise of candidate-centered campaigns portends an increase in the role of character. Procrastinated emergency declaration during Ida and nursing home deaths are indicative of a crisis leadership at its finest for which Gov. Murphy deserves fulsome praise.
This is not the gauche appearance of Mr. Murphy’s tie which could be dismissed as aesthetically displeasing, but is more to do with a clever diversion from the subject. Mr. Murphy seemed to have relied on the “Trump” factor more than Mr. Ciattarelli, considering President Donald Trump was a Republican.
Although handling of COVID seemed to be going against Gov. Murphy, outnumbered Democratic registrants seemed to be the only ray of hope for the governor to combat Mr. Ciattarelli’s rising popularity and his hard-hitting talking points on taxes in general.
Despite insistence, Jack cleverly gave an equitable answer to, in what could be termed as a racial question, on White supremacy, by the panelist.
Jack’s comments, “I’m mainstream, and Phil Murphy is extreme,” “Let’s fix New Jersey” seem to have resonated not just with the traditional Republican base but also with the unaffiliated and the independent voters. With this background, let’s look at how the second debate fared.
“Fair is Foul, Foul is Fair” is an alliterative phrase part of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” to gesture the audience to look beyond the illusion of its characters. Translate this to politics, vaccination or wearing masks is not an elixir to all problems faced by New Jersey under the current administration. Real solution comes from framing situational policies and implementing them.
The second debate, much like its predecessor, touched upon several items including choice of masks and vaccination, unemployment, revenue, school funding formula, legalization of marijuana, women’s reproductive rights, diversity and inclusion, Edna Mahan prison, subpoena powers for Civil Review boards, over development and affordable housing.
Although both the candidates started off on a strong note, Mr. Ciattarelli, buoyed by the stupendous response from the first debate, looked determined from the get go. Jack’s arguments were strikingly prescient. Mr. Murphy’s constant, repeated and unrelated allusions to Trump, Us v. Them, and White supremacy not only did not gel with the audience and viewers, but also dimmed his remote chances of winning the debate.
Particularly unappealing was his answer to mishandling of 31% fatalities during Tropical Storm Ida. Mr. Murphy using “in the middle of a pandemic” as an answer to incapably handling fatalities wasn’t well received. The fact that, when denied, Mr. Ciattarelli fought back with a question “Isn’t that criticism?” and pounced to get his rightful 30 seconds, speaks volumes about his dedication and commitment.
In perhaps the most trying stretch of his governorship, with his own approval numbers plummeting, Mr. Murphy seemed to have attempted to make the most with White supremacy (for which he was heavily booed), and the likes as a cudgel to attack Jack Ciattarelli and to diminish his rising popularity added no cadence to the governor’s claims, much to his vain.
The several years Mr. Ciattarelli spent cultivating a people’s person image, paired with the conciliatory tone he has adopted toward Democrats and independents alike, in public, has allowed him to push his message without facing charges of extremism — a label his opponents unsuccessfully tried to make stick during the gubernatorial campaign.
In a debate between “You asked for the job!” v. “Come on Man!” all the post-debate indications point to a seismic electoral shift in Ciattarelli’s favor. “We back Jack” isn’t just a rah-rah rhyme trotted out by Jack’s supporters, but is more so a compelling message well received across both sides of the aisle.
Ciattarelli, a self-made man, a glad-hander, and a flesh-presser, with his copacetic debatorial prowess and a convincing agenda, ability to handle attack ads on him with élan, rises as a beacon of hope in a promising political landscape. In sum, Jack was at the top of his game, again.
In Murphy’s own words, “If performance is your issue, debate is probably not your stage.”
“One and Done”!