During the coronavirus crisis, Murphy surfaces as the anti-Christie | Opinion

Posted Mar 19, 2020

By Alan J. Steinberg

It is in the area of symbolic leadership that Phil Murphy, in these early stages, appears to have most favorably moved his agenda forward, Alan Steinberg says. Above, Gov. Phil Murphy holds a coronavirus briefing in Trenton on March 17, 2020 


Two weeks ago, Gov. Phil Murphy was entering a true test of faith in his life, his hour of trial. He was facing major surgery to remove a tumor from his kidney.

He emerged from his hours-long surgery with the cancer removed and little time to rest. As governor of New Jersey, he now had to deal with the most perilous and deadly crisis ever faced by a New Jersey governor, the coronavirus pandemic.

Murphy had to confront this crisis under the worst possible circumstance. He had to work with a president, Donald Trump, a chief executive of the opposite party who had played politics with the pandemic, labeling it as a “Democratic hoax” and downplaying the deadly effect of the virus. Yet the most destructive action of Trump involved his elimination of the agency charged with confronting the pandemic.

Given the politically disabled state of the federal government, a historically unprecedented share of the burden in meeting this catastrophic crisis during the remainder of Trump’s term devolves to state governments.

In meeting this challenge, Governor Murphy must successfully pursue three categories of tasks:

  1. Political, namely the mitigation of partisan factors that could destroy cooperation between the Republican White House and the Democratic Murphy Administration;
  2. Policy, namely the selection of specific needs for the federal government to fund and /or provide;
  3. Leadership, specifically the ability to marshal the will of the people of New Jersey in support of the governor’s actions and policies.

Obviously, one cannot evaluate the success or failure of the governor’s actions and policies until the crisis has passed. It can be said, however, that Phil Murphy could not have gotten off to a better start in dealing with it.

The governor showed superb political judgment in resisting the temptation to cast blame on the Trump administration for the worsening of the crisis. On the daily conference calls between the state governors and the White House, this has enabled the continuing discussions between Murphy and the Trump Administration to proceed thus far in a cooperative fashion.

The Murphy “wish list” from the White House consists of federal contribution of mobile labs and kits for virus testing; personal protective equipment for the medical personnel and economic stimulus assistance for New Jersey businesses and individuals particularly adversely impacted during the crisis.

The outlook is hopeful for the Murphy administration will achieve its wish list goals. The list appears to be reasonable and well-founded.

It is in the area of symbolic leadership that Phil Murphy, in these early stages, appears to have most favorably moved his agenda forward.

The governor appears to have learned well the major lessons from the famous “Day of Infamy” speech President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave on Dec. 8, 1941, asking for a declaration of war against Japan on account of their attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii the day before.

The objectives of that speech were clear: To inform the citizenry of the damage already done, to describe the continuing danger and the action that would be taken to contain it, to maintain FDR’s credibility with the public and to provide a sense of optimism that in spite of the severe problems ahead, the American people ultimately would prevail.

Working out of his home in Middletown while recuperating from his surgery, Murphy is meeting all of these leadership objectives. He is providing a steady stream of information to the media and the New Jersey citizenry. And in establishing a strong bond with the public, Murphy is above all benefiting from one significant fact: He is the anti-Chris Christie.

Our previous governor is a man of irrepressible ambition and unbridled narcissism, hell-bent on seeking the presidency in 2024. In a column in the Washington Post, Christie abundantly displayed both of these traits, portraying himself as the savior of the Jersey Shore during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and as a leading authority on pandemics.

The people of New Jersey remember a different Chris Christie. They recall him going down to the Jersey Shore at the time of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, trying to establish a Christie cult of personality by haranguing the local citizenry to “get the hell off the beach.” More significantly, they remember how the Christie Shore rebuilding effort, plagued by maladministration and scandal, totally failed to meet expectations. And they cannot understand where Christie has demonstrated expertise in dealing with pandemics.

The steady, measured, and reassuring crisis management style of Phil Murphy is a welcome change from the Christie crisis management style of sound and fury, signifying nothing. During the early days of the coronavirus crisis, Phil Murray has established himself as a leader of profound decency and goodness. If he sticks to his course, the governor will lock up his reelection - and establish himself as a leader of greatness as well as goodness.


Alan J. Steinberg served as regional administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.

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