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Jim Florio and the Fickleness of Liberal Voters


With Jim Florio’s death, it’s worth remembering why he lost his position as governor of New Jersey:

But two months after taking office in January 1990 he proposed a budget that called for sharp increases in income and sales taxes totaling more than $2.5 billion, in addition to deep cuts in most state services.

He had no choice, he said. On taking a close look at the state’s books after he took office, he said, it was plain that just cutting spending would not be enough to balance the budget. Mr. Florio said tax-revenue projections by the previous Republican administration of Gov. Thomas H. Kean Sr. had been grossly overstated, even “phony,” and made even the deep spending cuts he proposed insufficient by themselves.

Public reaction was harsh. Many New Jerseyans felt betrayed, asserting that Mr. Florio had broken a firm pledge not to increase taxes. Many fellow Democratic politicians expressed shock at the extent of the proposed increases, and some budget experts said that Mr. Florio had ignored evidence during the campaign that tax increases would be unavoidable.

Ultimately, however, the Democratic-controlled State Senate and Assembly approved his plan by slim margins.

More popular were his successes in enacting auto-insurance reform aimed at lowering the steep premiums that the state’s residents had been paying; pushing for property-tax relief for many middle-income homeowners, a measure approved by the State Legislature; and appointing an environmental prosecutor to crack down on the state’s notoriously polluting industries.

Mr. Florio also won legislation to ban semiautomatic assault weapons, then prevailed over intense efforts led by the National Rifle Association to have the law repealed. And he successfully pushed a bill that shifted a substantial amount of state aid from affluent public school districts to lower and moderate-income ones — a measure that proved widely divisive.

But the tax increases were his undoing. Feeding off voters’ anger, Republicans for the first time in two decades gained control of both houses of the legislature in 1991, and in a close election two years later, Mr. Florio was denied a second term by Christine Todd Whitman, a former Somerset County freeholder and scion of a prominent New Jersey family who became the state’s first female governor.

Now, I recognize that the nation in 2022 is not the same as New Jersey in 1993. But Florio was a good liberal. He saw the state’s budget and acted. He took on the NRA. He fought against inequality in schools, which always angers wealthy whites. He was a good environmentalists. He took on the insurance companies.

And none of it mattered because he signed a bill to raise taxes. Enough liberal Democrats were upset that he raised their taxes that they voted for a Republican, albeit one who was moderate in the context of what has happened to the Republican Party.

I don’t say this as some excuse to attack liberals today. That wouldn’t be an accurate enough comparison. I do say that voters, including many self-styled liberals, are not particularly bright. They will vote based on the current state of the economy, regardless of what the executive may or may not have had to do with it. There’s reason to believe that the Democratic push in the polls based on the overturning of Roe may not in fact have legs to get Democrats elected in November. Even the Pennsylvania Senate race is tightening up. As I stated after Roe was overturned, the response of basically nothing except fundraising emails for Democrats wasn’t even close to enough. It wasn’t even an actual political response. And even that’s faded. The idea that that liberal governance and staking out the morally correct positions are going to pay off at the ballot box has very little evidence to back it up. As in the case of Florio, Democrats in 2022 could be in trouble because plenty of voters, even usual Democratic voters, care a lot more about gas prices going up by a quarter than they do about access to a safe and legal abortion.

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