Opinion

Reihan Salam

Chris Christie and the ‘failed war on drugs’

Reihan Salam
Jan 24, 2014 18:48 UTC

What would you do if you were a high-profile governor caught in the midst of a pseudo-scandal, with the national news media hanging on your every word? Here’s an idea: rather than focus exclusively on hurling accusations and counter-accusations, talk about something that actually matters. That is what New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did this past week. After weeks fending off accusations that he had systematically abused his power to punish his political enemies, Christie spent a good chunk of his second inaugural address on criminal justice reform. Cynical observers might conclude that the governor was shrewdly changing the subject, and they’d be right. But it happens that he is changing the subject to the most vexing policy challenge facing the United States, and arguably the most sorely neglected.

New Jersey is one of America’s most affluent states. Yet many of its largest cities are scarred by both high crime and an incarceration boom that has made a stint in prison a disturbingly common rite of passage, particularly for young black men. Though many believe that mass incarceration is a cure for violence, as it incapacitates potential victimizers, problems arise when incarceration becomes so commonplace that it is destigmatized, and that it ruins the lifelong earning potential of young men caught up in its net, few of whom go into prison as irredeemable villains. As Mark Kleiman, a public policy professor at UCLA and a leading advocate of criminal justice reform, argues in When Brute Force Fails, the chief challenge facing many people who wind up in prison is a lack of impulse control. And this problem can be more effectively addressed through low-cost interventions — like programs for parolees that offer modest punishments for failing drug tests, like a weekend in the clink — than through high-cost interventions, like a years-long prison sentence. What we’re dealing with is an enormous waste of human potential that harms not just the young men who wind up in prison, but also the families, and the children, they leave behind.

And that is exactly how Christie described the “failed war on drugs” in his second inaugural address. After stating that “every one of God’s creations has value,” and that the loss of a job can strip people of their dignity and self-respect, he railed against the notion that “incarceration is the cure of every ill caused by drug abuse,” and he promised to make drug treatment programs more widely available. He described his ultimate goal as creating “a society that understands that every life has value and no life is disposable,” a neat way of connecting his pro-life convictions to the cause of treating drug offenders more humanely.

Though one assumes that Christie’s emphasis on criminal justice reform stems from a humanitarian impulse, it also happens to make good political sense. When Christie was first elected governor in 2009, he was very much the candidate of the Garden State’s conservative outer suburbs and rural areas, and no one expected him to take much of an interest in the problems plaguing cities like Camden and Newark, his hometown. Yet in his re-election bid, he campaigned aggressively for urban voters and minority voters, and he was rewarded with 51 percent of the Latino vote and 21 percent of the black vote, numbers that are more impressive when you consider that he won 32 percent and 9 percent of Latino and black voters respectively during his last go-around. (Indeed, the aggressiveness of his outreach in communities that have long been monolithically Democratic is part of what’s at issue in the recent wave of allegations concerning the Christie administration’s heavy-handedness.) Talking sensitively and intelligently about the damage mass incarceration does to poor urban neighborhoods was one of several ways Christie tried to build trust with Democratic voters.

Criminal justice reform isn’t just an issue that resonates with Democrats, however. As the political scientists David Dagan and Steven Teles observe in their article on “The Conservative War on Prisons,” there has been a sea-change in how the political right understands mass incarceration. Dagan and Teles attribute this development to the fact that conservatives have over time come to see mass incarceration as an example of big-government waste, and the prison guard lobby that presses for mandatory minimums and other harsh measures as just as self-interested as the teachers unions.

Why New Jersey and Virginia matter to the GOP — and its future with black voters

Reihan Salam
Nov 1, 2013 19:27 UTC

Next week’s election will be an important one for the future of the GOP. In New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Christie is up for re-election, and by all accounts he is set to defeat his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Barbara Buono, by a wide margin. Christie is widely considered a serious candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, and his ability to win support among independents and Democrats in his home state will be a central part of his appeal.

But in Virginia, it increasingly looks as though Terry McAuliffe, an entrepreneur and investor best known as a political ally of former President Bill Clinton, will defeat Ken Cuccinelli, a staunch conservative much admired by the Tea Party right. At least some conservative activists saw Cuccinelli, who as Virginia’s attorney general played a leading role in constitutional challenges against the Affordable Care Act and other Obama administration initiatives, as a potential presidential contender. A bruising defeat against McAuliffe will put an end to such talk.

There are many things that separate Christie from Cuccinelli. Having served as governor for the better part of the last four years, Christie is a familiar figure. He began his tenure with a series of polarizing confrontations with New Jersey’s powerful public employee unions, yet he has spent the last year on a more conciliatory note, motivated in part by a desire to help his state recover from the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy. In a heavily Democratic state, Christie has distanced himself from congressional Republicans, and he has framed himself as a pragmatic reformer who stands above the political fray. This position is particularly valuable in light of parlous state of the GOP brand. The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds that the Republican party now has a 22 percent positive rating and a 53 percent negative rating across the country, and it’s a safe bet that the picture is even worse in New Jersey.

Chris Christie, the Republican Bill Clinton

Reihan Salam
May 15, 2013 17:24 UTC

Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, has a lot to be happy about. The recent revelation that he had lap-band surgery to gain control of his weight went about as well as could be expected. A less well-liked public figure might have been mocked for taking an extreme step, but Christie’s self-deprecating wit and what at least seems like unrehearsed genuineness and warmth have served as a shield. Like Bill Clinton in his prime, Christie has a mix of great appetite and great energy that Americans find strangely compelling.

And because there are only two gubernatorial elections in 2013, Christie’s bid for re-election is attracting a good deal of national attention, almost all of which has been positive. A new NBC News/Marist poll, released on Wednesday of last week found that Christie has a 69 percent approval rating, and that he leads his most likely Democratic challenger, State Senator  Barbara Buono, by 60 percent to 28 percent among registered voters. Among likely voters, Christie’s support increases to 62 percent while Buono’s stays the same.

Christie still has to overcome the fact that the New Jersey electorate skews left, as demonstrated by Barack Obama’s crushing 58to-40 percent victory over Mitt Romney in last year’s presidential election. One can imagine Democrats and left-of-center independents deciding they can’t back a self-described conservative for governor, no matter how much they like him personally. Mindful of this danger, Christie has been keen to emphasize his willingness to work across the aisle. In a new campaign advertisement, a narrator with a soothing baritone voice praises the New Jersey governor for “working with Democrats and Republicans, believing that as long as you stick to your principles, compromise isn’t a dirty word.”

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