Chris Christie takes D.C. by storm (Part 1)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made a Washington, D.C., debut of sorts this afternoon, delivering, at the American Enterprise Institute, his first major speech inside the Beltway. The good news for Republicans? He is a political star. The bad news for Republicans? He seems sincere in his determination not to run for the presidency in 2012.
That was on everyone's mind, of course. And sure enough, the first questioner after his remarks asked whether he would run. Christie deadpanned, "Well, that took a long time, didn't it?" That induced a hearty laugh from the audience. He continued, recounting his previous disavowals of interest in a 2012 presidential run: "Listen, I threatened to commit suicide. Apparently, I actually have to commit suicide." More laughter. But his rationale appeared sincere. He said, "You have to feel in your heart and mind you are ready to run for the presidency." He told the group bluntly he didn't feel he was. He said quite matter of factly, "I'm not stupid. I see the opportunity. ... But that is not a reason to run for president." And then he confessed that if he runs, "my wife will kill me." So those who pine for a charismatic, tough-as-nails, funny conservative will have to look for another 2012 presidential candidate -- or bide their time until 2016. Note, however, he was not asked about and did not rule out a vice presidential slot.
The reason Christie is so highly regarded by so many Republicans became clear as he held the room, largely made up of reporters, in the palm of his hand for over 40 minutes.
He began by noting that his priorities -- fiscal discipline, health and pension reform and education -- were not merely issues for conservatives. He said, "I defy you to look at the first six months of the Cuomo administration in Albany and determine much of a difference" from what he is doing. He joked that "for God's sakes, Jerry Brown" is talking about the need to reduce the state workforce by 10 percent.
And then he took the crowd through a narrative of his first 13 months in office, revealing not only his often-unmentioned toughness, but also comic timing and delivery that are second to none on the national scene. When Christie arrived in Trenton, he recalled, he was told there was a massive deficit and "if I didn't act immediately we wouldn't meet payroll in March." So he impounded billions without going to the legislature. "This was not a time for compromise," he said.
But then the legislature insisted on passage of a "millionaires' tax." Christie wisecracked, "Let me to give you a lesson in New Jersey math." In New Jersey, he observed, the millionaires' tax falls on those making $400,000 and up. He described a stunt by his predecessor, Gov. Jon Corzine, who threatened to sleep on a cot unless the legislature passed a tax hike to try to close the state's massive deficit. He recounted his first tussle with state legislators: "I called them down early on and advised them the place was under new management." He told the AEI audience, to much laughter, how he responded to a threatened shutdown of the state government: "I was not moving onto any cot. I told them I'd take the state troopers, go to the governor's mansion, have a beer and order a pizza." He paused and delivered the punch line, "Look at me. You think I'm sleeping on a cot?" And indeed he faced the legislature down and enacted a real cut in expenditures of 9 percent.
That initial standoff set the stage for what was to follow. "Now we have a whole new way of budgeting in New Jersey," he explained. Under Christie the state government now does "budgeting from the bottom up." Every cabinet head has to justify spending on programs and whatever doesn't fit within the budget parameters "is out." In Washington, he cautioned, "You'll have folks tell you every bit of federal spending is necessary and laudatory. It's not."
He then described a quintessential Christie scene. He released a plan in September 2010 to cut back on health and pension benefits. That day he went to speak to 7,500 firefighters. "Seventy-five hundred firefighters booed "lustily," he recalled. "I said, 'C'mon, you can do better than that.' And they did!" He explained that he then threw away the script and told the firefighters, "Here's the deal. Governors have come into this room and lied to you." Christe told them that governors had made promises that could not be kept. And he told the firefighters, "I understand why you feel angry, betrayed and deceived," and then implored them to not beat up on the guy coming to tell them the truth.
It's that straight-talking leadership he hopes those inside the Beltway will emulate.
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