Chris Christie takes D.C. by storm (part 2)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) didn't come to AEI merely to tell war stories. Plainly, he wants to Washington politicians to follow his lead. With regard to our federal fiscal mess, he told the audience, "You can't fix these problems if you don't talk about them." He continued, "In D.C. I'm worried." The president had said that "America is doing the big things," but then Christie listed the items in the State of the Union address: "high speed rail, high speed internet access, 1 million electric cars." He declared, "That is the candy of American politics; they are not the big things." He continued with his critique, "Now what this has become, I read, is a political strategy. Obama is waiting for Republicans to talk about it and House Republicans are waiting for Obama to talk about it."
"The game," he asserted, is "irresponsible and dangerous."
He said that politicians "should be specific." He asked, "What is the truth nobody is talking about?" We "need to raise the social security retirement age," he answered. "Ooh, I said it. And I am standing here. I did not vaporize into the carpet." (Much laughter followed.) He observed, "People say I'm going too fast. They say in the legislature, 'We are a deliberative body.' Well, you need to get your English to Trenton dictionary." To more laughter in the room he explained that when the legislators say, "We need to study the governor's proposal," what that "means in Trenton is 'We are going to drag our feet as long as possible until it dies a natural death.'" He continued, "They call me impatient. They call me other things, too [laughter]." But he argued, "America needs some impatience." (Was he mocking the president, who yesterday chided critics for being "impatient" in their demands for budget cuts?)
Christie rejected the idea that making tough cuts will make politicians unpopular. He told the audience, that he was told that if he made big cuts in popular programs, "Your approval ratings will go in the toilet." He told them, "I'm going to try an experiment. I'm going to start treating the people of New Jersey like adults." And, lo and behold, as he pointed out, after being elected in a three way race with 49 percent of the vote, his approval after 13 months now stands at 54 percent. He said, "That's in a state that is as Democratic a state as any Republican governor will face."
In essence, his speech was about political courage. Politicians, he said, "run the last election this time and they don't look around to see what has changed." By merely treading water, they are hanging "an albatross of irresponsibility" around the necks of taxpayers. He used education to make his point vivid. The state spends $17,000 per pupil, the highest in the country. He cautions, "More money isn't going to solve this problem." He was candid that he wants to "separate the teachers from the union" and make sure there is room for good teachers. He said that currently "we have built a system . . . that cares more about the feelings of adults than the future of children" He cracked, "Tell me where else is there a profession with no reward for excellence and no penalty for failure?" He answered: weathermen and teachers. But, he argued, "America is built on rewarding excellence and having consequences for failure."
Christie obviously relishes a fight on principles against the unions or other naysayers of his fiscal discipline crusade. He said, "I'm not disagreeing for the sake of disagreeing, and I'm not fighting for the sake of fighting. I'm fighting now because now is the time that matters most for New Jersey and America." And in a mild tweak at Republicans, he asserted that "American exceptionalism has to include the courage to do the right thing."
He said all politicians have "two choices, either stand up and do the right thing... or join the long parade of leaders who have come before us and failed. I did not run for this job for failure. I ran for this job for success." He continued, "It seems to me that what America is all about is a group of people who came from all over the world who wanted an opportunity for greatness." The World War ll generation, he said, was called the "greatest generation." He explained, "We judged them in the aftermath and we found them to be great by any objective measure." He advised, "We will be judged too by our children and grandchildren . . . Believe me, we'll be judged." And he concluded with a phrase now associated with his persona (and appearance): "It is time for us to get to work and find our greatness again. It is time to do big things, the really big things."
It's not hard to see why conservatives are entranced by him. But, candidly, so were many of the cynical reporters in the room. They are used to hearing so much spin that they, too, you could observe, were amused and enthralled by someone so blunt and so expert at the showmanship that is essential to achieve greatness as a politician.
He also knows how to choose his targets. In the Q&A after his remarks, he was asked about the president's budget and his assertion that under his budget we would see the point at which expenditures would not exceed revenues. Christie began by saying he hadn't studied the budget proposal. But then he was off and running. "Here's what I'm concerned about," he said. "There is not a mention of entitlements" in the budget. He said that after the Arizona tragedy and inspiring presidential speech, he thought Obama "had momentum." Going into the State of the Union, Christie thought: "He's going to cement reelection and make the tough calls." But then he went 40 minutes before any talk of cutting spending. The first 40 minutes were about investments." And then he showed his deft touch. "Now who's going to say 'I don't like high speed internet. I think it should go slower!'?" But his message to the president was a gentle one, "He has time to fix it, and I hope he does." He said, "Unlike some others, I'm not looking for the president to fail." (A dig at talk show hosts, perhaps?) He explained, "We get one president at a time." With a touch of false modesty, he concluded that "in the end all I can do is speak out, express my disappointment and lead by example."
The 2012 Republican presidential contenders are lucky. If Christie had decided to throw his hat in the ring, there is no doubt in my mind that he'd soar to the top of the pack. Certainly, he does possess the ingredients for a successful conservative -- good humored, fearless, patriotic, plain-spoken and devoted to fiscal sobriety. The Republicans had better find someone who can come close to that package of traits, or they'll be looking at a second Obama term.
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