When New Jersey's 2009 campaign for Governor comes to a close on Tuesday night, one candidate will bask in the glory of victory. The state's reputation, however, won't be as lucky. Once again, the level of discourse in a New Jersey political campaign has gone so low that pundits around the nation are chastising the Garden State.
"Elevated political discourse in New Jersey? Fat chance," read a recent headline in The State of Columbia, S.C. Slate described the campaign as an "all-out food fight," and Washington Post columnist David Broder put it this way: "Campaigns there are rarely elevated affairs, but the current battle between Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine and Republican challenger Christopher Christie has sunk to new depths."
It's hard to find fault with the harsh words coming from other parts of the nation, especially since New Jerseyans are voicing similar opinions about politics in their home state. Just take a look at what happened when the Monmouth University Polling Institute conducted a focus group that revealed a strong sense of frustration among undecided voters. According to an Associated Press report: "The voters said they were disappointed with how Gov. Jon Corzine has governed the state, doubtful Republican Chris Christie would do better, and skeptical independent Chris Daggett can pull an upset victory."
Even endorsements for some candidates are being delivered with less than overwhelming enthusiasm: "The choices are few, and from here, the known is a step above the unknown," The Record rationalized in an editorial endorsing incumbent Assemblywomen Nellie Pou and Elease Evans.
What are the chances of turning things around? The pessimists among us would say the odds are slim when it comes to attempting to reverse the direction that New Jersey campaigns have taken. The pessimists probably are correct, but that doesn't mean we should not try. So here are a few suggestions to improve our campaign process in the Garden State:
• Shorter Timeframe - We can't ban annoying and offensive television ads, mailings, press releases and the like, but we can take steps to have less of them by shortening the campaign. One way to accomplish this would be to move our primary election from June to September, which is when several other states hold their primaries. Why not do it here and cut down on a few months of campaigning? Most New Jersey voters don't begin to focus on elections until after Labor Day anyway.
• Revamped Debate Format - Scrap the existing debate process. The candidates have canned answers that they use regardless of the questions, and the format often makes it difficult for moderators to obtain more specific answers. Candidates and campaigns should not be part of the negotiating process that sets the format. Instead, have a panel of private citizens, civic leaders and academics develop a format designed to garner substantive information from the candidates about where they stand - and how they differ - on the major issues confronting the state.
• Ad Ratings - Establish an accuracy rating system for campaign ads and require every ad to carry a rating just like we do for motion pictures. Clearly this would be a difficult and controversial undertaking, but it may be what is needed to start reigning in negative ads. Hollywood producers have been known to edit their movies to avoid R or X ratings. Perhaps, political consultants would follow suit to prevent their ads from receiving an official label of inaccurate or misleading.
Lastly, let's put an end to robocalls. We're all tired of retrieving voice mail messages from the likes of Bill Clinton, Rudy Giuliani and other national figures. There should be a more valuable role for people of such stature - such as putting their minds together to develop and implement a plan to make our political campaigns worthy of the great nation in which we live.