A Caesar in Trenton

April 03, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

Trenton, New Jersey. -- When the new governor went on a radio call-in show to solicit ideas for state frugality, a caller urged that prison inmates be fed the deer killed by automobiles. This suggestion, both parsimonious and punitive, suits the mood of the moment, but Christine Todd Whitman deals in more sweeping measures.

Her program contrasts tellingly with the president's. And it could catapult her into Republican plans for defeating him.

Candidate Clinton talked of tax cuts. President Clinton raised taxes retroactively. Candidate Whitman promised a phased 30 percent cut in income taxes. Governor Whitman swiftly enacted the first phase, and made it retroactive. She also eliminated all income taxes for persons earning less than $7,500, thereby removing 380,000 from the tax rolls, and cut corporate taxes retroactively.

She and her state have had a five-year roller coaster ride. In 1989 Democrat Jim Florio ran for governor saying he saw ''no need'' for new taxes. Once elected he quickly saw a $2.8 billion need. In 1990 voters vented their anger by giving the then unknown and (( underfunded Mrs. Whitman 47 percent of the vote against Sen. Bill Bradley.

In 1992 her campaign against Governor Florio was flagging until her September announcement of her tax-cutting plans. Voters were initially skeptical. The Philadelphia Inquirer, read by many New Jersey voters, spoke for many in deriding ''a politically expedient proposal that passes into the realm of the ridiculous. . . . We do not think Mrs. Whitman herself believes in this plan . . . an intentional fraud perpetuated by a desperate candidate.''

But she had seen the devastation of southern New Jersey's boat builders by the federal ''luxury tax'' passed in 1990 (and repealed in 1992). And she knew that during Governor Florio's tenure, while the nation was generating 3.2 million new jobs, New Jersey was losing 277,000, more than any state other than West Virginia. While New Jersey's budget had grown 25 percent -- triple the inflation rate -- in Governor Florio's first three years, real personal income had grown at an annual rate of just 0.3 percent. That meant the state's residents were $22 billion poorer than they would have been if the trend line of recent growth of personal income in New Jersey had been maintained.

Furthermore, she knew that businesses are increasingly transplantable, and states increasingly competitive. One way to compete is by lowering taxes on the incomes of the executives who make relocation decisions. Besides, if she had followed the pattern of the last quarter-century, the state budget would have doubled in eight years. So the lady was not for turning: ''There is only one way to cut government spending, and that is to cut the amount of tax dollars we take out of your pockets.''

When her campaign consultant, a Washington blatherskite, regaled reporters after the election with tales of money used to suppress the black turnout, Mrs. Whitman's reaction -- fury leavened by disdain -- stamped her as an exception to the rule that in politics as in professional wrestling there is no role for authentic passion. And she has continued to show a talent for blunt talk. On tax cutting: ''I didn't say read my lips, I'm just doing it.'' On New Jersey public television having to do without tax dollars: ''Government ownership of the media went out with Pravda.''

She is supporting a school-choice voucher program for Jersey City, and favors recertification of teachers as a way of countering the enervating effects of tenure. What about the teachers' union? A shrug: ''They hate me anyway.''

A New Jersey governor is an American Caesar, the nation's strongest chief executive. Mrs. Whitman is New Jersey's only official elected statewide, wielding line-item, conditional and absolute vetoes, so she has power commensurate with the clarity of her program.

When her campaign seemed to be failing, that same campaign consultant, trying to distance himself from what looked like a disaster, whispered to a reporter that ''she's a Bush Republican.'' Actually, she more resembles Mr. Bush's predecessor as president -- He Who Is Sorely Missed. She says: ''Our principal problems are not the product of great economic ++ shifts or other vast unseen forces. They are the creation of government.''

On a national ticket she could help Republicans where they particularly need help. In 1992 Bill Clinton did just three percentage points better than George Bush among men but eight points better among women. Among working women, who are 30 percent of the electorate, Mr. Clinton beat Mr. Bush by 10 points.

Large letters on a bridge over the Delaware River here proclaim: ''Trenton Makes, the World Takes.'' Mrs. Whitman is making waves and Republicans nationally are taking notice.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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