Gov. Chris Christie went to Washington this week to share his views and challenge the political establishment in his own unique and provocative style. Christie went after both Democrats and Republicans, but particularly President Barack Obama and the GOP House leadership for not having the guts to take on the difficult issues facing our country, particularly entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, which everyone agrees are bordering on going bust.
In a speech before the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Christie said, "Here’s the truth that nobody’s talking about. You're gonna have to raise the retirement age for social security… Whoa, I just said it, and I'm still standing here. I did not vaporize into the carpeting."
So there you have it. This is exhibit A of what makes Christie not only a YouTube sensation but the kind of politician a lot of serious political observers and analysts see as presidential material. Who says stuff like that? Who actually talks about raising the retirement age for Social Security, unless we are talking former members of Congress who didn’t have the guts to say it while they were in office and now have nothing to risk. It wasn’t just what he said, it was the dramatic and entertaining, "I’m having fun doing this," style that made Christie’s Washington speech so newsworthy.
Don’t get me wrong, there are times I disagree with the governor, including his refusing to consider raising taxes on the wealthiest New Jerseyans to help close our massive budget deficit. I also disagree with some of Christie’s cuts involving women’s health clinics. But overall, Christie’s blunt, candid and sobering style is just what the state and country need.
Even though Christie says he is not running for president in 2012 (He has said, "My wife would kill me."), you have to wonder why he took such a direct hit at President Obama. Christie challenged Obama’s recent State of the Union speech, in which the president talked about doing "big things." New Jersey’s governor wondered out loud whether extended high-speed internet access to the country, as Obama advocated, is such a "big thing." Said Christie, "Nobody’s going to say, 'I get high-speed Internet access. Could it go slower? I would appreciate it if the Internet actually went slower. I don’t like high-speed access.' No one says that… Of course it’s good. But we don’t live in a vacuum… What I was looking for that night was for my president to stand up there and challenge me and say to me and everybody else in the country, 'Now is the time to fix the problem. I am going to lead you there'… And it was a disappointment that he didn’t."
I was disappointed in the president as well in this regard. I would love to see him be more candid and honest about Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. Those are big things. Those are huge problems, and the president doesn’t seem to say much about them. However, neither does House Speaker John Boehner or any of the Republican establishment in Congress. To his credit, Christie was just as direct in his criticism of the Republicans in Congress, who he said together with President Obama were playing "a game" with respect to entitlements.
Gov. Christie also spoke in supportive terms of Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who was also dealing with a brutal state budget and a massive deficit, which threatens his state’s solvency. Said Christie in his Washington speech of Cuomo’s proposed spending cuts and his not raising taxes, "It's not because all of a sudden Gov. Cuomo and I have discovered we are part of the same party… We are not. But we are confronted with the same problems."
My sense is what Chris Christie has tapped into is that the vast majority of Americans have no use for either major political party. There really is no Democratic or Republican way to balance a budget. You just have to make the really tough choices. You have to tell people the stuff they don’t want to hear. What senior citizen or someone who is about to retire wants to hear Christie talk about raising the retirement age?
And remember, seniors vote at a much higher rate than any other age group. Yet, my sense is that what the governor has decided to do is to speak his mind and not worry a lot about who he offends. He did the same thing when he spoke at a Right to Life rally in front of the Statehouse recently and reaffirmed his opposition to abortion. That’s not a particularly popular position in the state of New Jersey, but at least you know where the governor stands.
Even if you disagree with the governor, or challenge his politics, the one thing that is undeniable is that he has drastically changed the political discourse in our state and, increasingly, in our nation. He's making it harder for politicians to deliver the same pabulum about important and pressing issues. More and more, the rest of us are going to ask politicians who want to run for national and state office to respond to Christie’s public statements about entitlements. What’s going to happen when Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin or even Barack Obama get asked, "Do you agree with Gov. Chris Christie that the retirement age for social security should be raised?" They might try to duck it and probably will, but their evasiveness will be that much more apparent because of Christie’s candor.
Like I said, I don't agree with him on everything, but Chris Christie continues to be one of the most interesting, provocative and candid political figures not just in New Jersey, but across this country. Don’t expect that to change any time soon.