At the retreat Mitt Romney is hosting this week in Park City, a major theme will be pragmatic, bipartisan problem solving. The former Republican presidential candidate will bring together campaign supporters, policy experts and public officials — including Democrats like David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, and Erskine Bowles, former White House chief of staff to Bill Clinton — to develop plans to "help shape national priorities." Among the movers and shapers will be three likely GOP contenders for the presidency in 2016: Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.
In this atmosphere, Christie will get a lot of attention — as he should. He is an attractive personality, a great speaker and he has earned high poll ratings in his state.
Some Republicans have bridled at his "bromance" with President Obama, whom the governor has praised lavishly since a giant storm hit New Jersey on the brink of last year's election. The New York Times called the Christie relationship "an aspirational model of the bipartisan cooperation Mr. Obama has said he has longed for since he took office, yet has eluded him with Republicans on Capitol Hill." Christie has certainly helped Obama — and vice versa. There was even speculation that the governor would appoint a Democrat to fill the seat of Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died Monday.
The truth is that most Americans long for bipartisanship; they like seeing Republicans and Democrats getting together. Surveys show that "compromise" is not a dirty word.
But Americans also admire principle as the basis for policy. They expect their leaders to stand for something, and they want to see government's role limited. Yes, some regulations are necessary, but a high-taxing, over-intrusive government suppresses economic growth — and the opportunity for jobs and self-fulfillment that come with it.
Last year, U.S. gross domestic product sputtered along at just 2 percent — and, according to a consensus of experts in The Economist magazine, 2013 won't be much better. That's a real waste. The U.S. has the potential to grow at 4 percent, and with the right policies we can achieve that goal.
In a host of surveys, however, New Jersey fails to pull its weight. Three and a half years into his term, Christie's state continues to rank near the bottom when it comes to providing a productive environment for private enterprise. For example, in a study released in March, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University placed New Jersey 48th of the 50 states for economic freedom overall, with poor rankings in such areas as regulation, tax burden, and regulatory policy (48th in each) and property rights (50th). Utah, by contrast, ranks 10th.
Another survey, published last month by Chief Executive, a magazine and online publication for business leaders, placed New Jersey 46th for business friendliness (Utah was 12th). New Jersey fared especially poorly for high tax rates and unemployment, heavy debt per capita ($6900 versus $2600 for Utah) and significant out-migration.
Probably the best evidence of a state's success is whether people are coming or going. New Jersey's population fell 6 percent between 2000 and 2012. By contrast, neighboring Delaware was up 6 percent (Utah's population rose 2.4 percent). Another critical statistic is that in 2011, New Jersey's GDP dropped 0.5 percent — two full points below the national average.
The dismal rankings are not entirely Gov. Christie's fault. New Jersey has a history of government intervention and high taxes, and Democrats dominate both houses of the Legislature. As an anonymous business leader told Chief Executive magazine: "Historically, I have never dealt with a state that had more of a 'gotcha' attitude and treated businesses like they were guilty until proven innocent."
Unfortunately, history in New Jersey keeps repeating itself. In January of last year, Christie moved a close associate, Jeff Chiesa, up from chief counsel to attorney general, an appointive position in the state. It's difficult to distinguish Chiesa from his predecessors, who became famous for filing obsessive lawsuits like the one against Blockbuster for claiming that it had a "no more late fees" policy while charging customers a flat one-time $1.25 to re-stock a video that was up to 30 days overdue.
New Jersey has developed a well-deserved reputation for pursuing legal action against businesses large and small and for serving as a haven for tort lawyers. Lately, the state has been aggressively suing over alleged "price-gouging" following Superstorm Sandy. One station was charged with selling regular gasoline for $4.80. A proper assessment of the governor, or of any other public official for that matter, should focus on policies. And in New Jersey, anti-business policies have deterred freedom and stunted the economy. Let's hope that this week's conclave in Utah helps set Chris Christie — and other leaders — on the path to 4 percent growth.
James K. Glassman, a former U.S. under secretary of State, is executive director of the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas.