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Chris Christie sat impassively at the round mahogany table in his family kitchen Monday as I recounted some of the data that suggested he was too damaged to run for president. A recent CBS News poll found that 42 percent of Republican voters wouldn’t even consider voting for him — not after that whole bridge fiasco and a bunch of smaller eruptions having to do with lavish travel and awkward man-hugs. His approval rating in New Jersey has dipped below 30 percent.
I reminded Christie that four years ago, when he was on top of the political world, Republican contributors had urged him to run. Did he ever think back to those days and wonder if, you know, he kind of blew it?
“Yeah, no,” Christie said, shaking his head. “’Cause I wasn’t ready. And in the end, remember something: Everything that everybody said back in 2011 about me running in 2012 was all theoretical. It was all based on the inherent assumption of ‘He’ll do well if he performs well.’
“Well, that second part of the sentence is really important,” he said. “The only way you’re going to perform well is if you believe in your heart that you’re ready to be president. And I didn’t. And so there was no way I would have won in 2012. I wouldn’t have, because I wasn’t ready.”
I asked if he felt ready now.
“Yes,” Christie answered, without a nanosecond’s hesitation.
So if you’re Christie, and you find yourself ready at a moment when the voters seem less ready to have you, where do you go to get your groove back? How do you re-establish yourself among Republican primary voters as the serious-minded reformer who seemed, for a time anyway, to tower above the rest of the prospective Republican field?
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (Photo: Louis Lanzano/AP)
The answer is: You go back to what you do best, and maybe better than anyone else.
And so Tuesday in New Hampshire, Christie will reignite a crucial but divisive debate in American politics, unveiling a surprisingly detailed plan to remake the entitlement programs that account for more than half of federal spending now (and growing). As he did in New Jersey during those first, heady years of his governorship, Christie is taking on a longer-term problem that candidates in either party have historically tried to ignore, mainly because it entails nothing but bad news and thankless choices.
It’s an odd time to talk about entitlements. Unlike in 2011, when federal debt was growing and the president was negotiating feverishly with House Republicans for a “grand bargain,” deficits are now in retreat, and health care costs are moving in the right direction.
The only ones talking about entitlements lately are liberals in Congress like Elizabeth Warren — who feel emboldened enough to push for an expansion of both taxes and benefits, even for the wealthiest Americans.
But of course, Christie’s gambit on entitlements is about more than the policy. It’s also about reintroducing him to primary voters as the only guy out there who is willing to tell you, in blunt terms, what you need to hear about the realities of government, whether it makes for fun conversation or not.
Jeb Bush has said that a candidate has to be willing to lose the primaries in order to win the White House. Which certainly sounds good, except that suddenly it seems to be Christie, and not Bush, trying to put that premise to the test.
In some ways, Christie’s entitlement plan, which his policy team says would save the country more than $1 trillion over 10 years, is an amalgam of what conservatives like Paul Ryan and bipartisan commissions have been suggesting for years.
Christie holds hands with a tearful former social worker asking for the governor’s help with medical issues during a town hall meeting earlier this year in Matawan, N.J. (Photo: Mel Evans/AP)
On Medicare, for instance, Christie will propose gradually raising the retirement age to 69 and expanding existing “means testing” — that is, making wealthier Americans bear more of the cost of their own health care.
Christie’s idea for Medicaid is a variation on the controversial block grant that Ryan has proposed, in which the entire program would be dismantled and reconstituted as a cash transfer to the states. (In Christie’s more flexible version, states would get more money if more people enrolled in the program.) He’s also calling for an overhaul of the disability insurance program, which faces an imminent funding crisis, based on a model in the Netherlands that aims to keep disabled workers on the job.
But none of that, while unusually thought out, is really the headline. Christie’s boldest idea, and the one certain to be most provocative, has to do with Social Security, where he is delving into a problem that most Democrats won’t acknowledge and most Republicans — Ryan included — don’t want to touch.
Currently, Social Security has none of the means testing done in Medicare; in other words, you get back more than you paid in, regardless of how much money you might still be earning. Christie would change this, so that seniors earning $80,000 and up would begin to see their benefits shaved on a sliding scale. If you were a single senior earning $200,000, your benefits would disappear entirely. (The limits would be higher for couples.)
Christie would also raise the normal retirement age for Social Security —quickly, by actuarial standards — to 69 (it’s currently headed for 67) and the early-retirement age from 62 to 64. And he would eliminate payroll taxes entirely for workers after they turn 62, as an incentive to keep them in the workforce (and because they’ve already paid their share of Social Security).
The one very sensible cost-saving measure that Christie doesn’t include in his plan, notably, is the progressive idea to lift the “cap” on payroll taxes, so that the top percent of American earners pay more than a fraction of their wages into the system. Here Christie falls short of most reform proposals, but it’s not hard to see why; raising any tax creates a kind of speaking-in-tongues madness among the activists inside his party.
The numbers here may sound dully abstract, but let’s just take a step back for a moment and get to the larger point, because, underneath the data points, there’s actually something profound going on.
Christie speaks during a recent town hall meeting at the Hanover Township Community Center in Whippany, N.J. (Photo: Julio Cortez/AP)
You will often hear politicians (not to mention interest groups) refer to Social Security, as established by Franklin Roosevelt, as a “social insurance” program. But of course that’s really a misnomer. Think of it this way: If you buy fire insurance, and your house never burns down, does the company show up on your doorstep after 30 years and hand you a check for twice the value of the house?
Social Security is, by any real definition, an entitlement, in the sense that you are entitled to get your money back — and then some — no matter how rich or poor you ultimately become.
What Christie is proposing is that Americans agree to restructure Social Security, 80 years after it was first enacted, to make it exactly what its staunchest defenders have always claimed it is: an actual insurance policy. If you need the money, you get it back. If you don’t, you don’t — or at least not the whole amount.
Democrats from the White House on down, of course, will scream that Social Security doesn’t have a solvency problem like Medicare and Medicaid; tweak a few taxes, and the thing can pay for itself for decades to come. Why change it at all, unless you’re just looking for a reason to unwind the Great Society?
But Christie’s argument goes beyond solvency. He takes the position that whether or not you can sustain these programs, a society just can’t thrive when it’s spending more than half its income on programs for the elderly, while investing almost nothing in its next generation.
When we talked, Christie reeled off for me a series of critical, large-scale investments government had made during the 20th century, including curing diseases and building schools. “You can’t do that if you’re going to spend two-thirds of your national budget on entitlement programs,” he said, “which is where we’re headed.”
Of course, cutting into Social Security benefits — anyone’s benefits — isn’t likely to be a much easier sell with Republicans than it is with Democrats. I pointed out to Christie, in case he hadn’t heard, that Republican voters tend to skew older. (“Yeah, thank you,” he deadpanned.)
“I think if you go to someone who’s getting 200,000 in retirement income and say to them, ‘Hey, you’re not going to get your monthly Social Security check,’ it’s not going to markedly change their lifestyle,” Christie said. “I think the grandmothers and grandfathers of this country care about the lives their grandchildren are going to have. And they want these programs to exist for their grandchildren.”
Christie is on comfortable ground here. He managed to rally New Jerseyans around a public pension reform plan that passed with bipartisan support during his first term. More recently, he’s been pursuing even broader reform, joined by the same teachers’ union he vilified when he came to office.
It’s worth pointing out, though, that there’s a significant difference between the politics of pension reform in a state and doing the same thing when it comes to federal entitlements. It’s one thing to ask voters to get behind measures that will adversely affect the retirement plans of their teachers and firefighters — but not necessarily themselves.
Asking voters to imperil their own benefits, or maybe their parents’, is another thing entirely, and virtually unheard of in presidential politics.
Christie insists that none of this means he’s actually a candidate for 2016, and he seems entirely unhurried by the rapidly expanding field. He said the real race wouldn’t really begin until the debates start in August, anyway, and he brushed off my suggestion that reaction to his entitlement plan might affect his decision.
Christie waves after speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., in February. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP)
“The reception inside the place you are right now,” he said, motioning to the rooms of his stately suburban home, “is much more important to me in terms of whether I run for president than the reception in Iowa or New Hampshire. All that will change over time, based on issues. And anyone who thinks the current shape of this race will be static just hasn’t been alive to watch the last, you know, 10 presidential races.”
Christie said he could wait until June to make a final decision. I wondered aloud if he could really afford to wait that long.
“Sure,” he said, looking surprised. “What’s happening, exactly, that would make me want to go faster?”
What about Bush’s momentum with the establishment Republicans who might have backed Christie? Wasn’t that making his path harder?
“Let’s see if he can hold it,” he said. “And I don’t know that he’s taken up that much of it. But he certainly makes the race different. Listen, if your father and your brother have been president of the United States, and you enter the race, you make the race different, you know? There’s no one else who could have entered the race who was bringing that résumé to the table, that both their father and their brother had been president.”
Having emphasized this point about heredity twice in 20 seconds, Christie offered some vague praise. “Plus Jeb’s a very bright guy, and I think he was an effective governor of Florida, so he’s a credible candidate,” he said. “But this race is wide open and he’s by no means closed it out. And if that was their intent when they entered in December, then they haven’t reached their goal.”
I asked him if he thought Scott Walker, who used to seek his advice as a first-term governor, was ready to be president.
“Oh, I think that’s up to him to decide,” Christie said blandly. “The same way I had to. You have to decide if you’re ready or not, and Scott’s going to have to make that decision for himself. It’s not for me to judge.”
And yet Walker was having his moment, I pointed out, while Christie waited around and plummeted to the bottom of the pack, his negative ratings higher than those of all the other candidates.
“A year ago it was different,” Christie said with a shrug. “Three years ago it was different. You know, it changes, and people don’t really know who is going to be in the race or how those people are going to perform once they’re in it. So that stuff will change, I guarantee you. It will change overnight.”
Oddly, for a guy with alarming poll numbers and a policy plan that might start a riot at the rest home, Christie seemed genuinely to regard himself as the big kahuna standing on the sidelines, unimpressed with the other candidates and unfazed by whatever they’re up to. His critics in New Jersey and Washington would call that a disconnect from reality, and they would say it’s not atypical.
I interpreted his nonchalance a different way, though. I’ve interviewed Christie for years now, and like a lot of us, he is a perplexing combination of insecurity in some situations and supreme confidence in others. The former is the ugly emotion that sometimes creeps up in those videos you see, where some voter at a town hall talks down to the governor, and Christie lashes out like a kid on the playground.
When I asked him if he would need to tone down that act in New Hampshire and Iowa, Christie replied, “Listen, you always try to learn, OK? But I recoil against the idea of toning down. I’m going to be who I am.”
But what Christie knows about himself, in his better moments, is that he remains the best pure communicator in Republican politics today, and maybe in American politics, period. Say what you will about the man and his temperament, bury him in a mountain of negative polls if you want, but when you put him in a room with actual voters and give him an argument he believes in, he’ll take his chances every time.
This is why Christie is willing not only to run against the popular perception, and to take his time about doing it, but also to run on a policy platform that’s sure to meet with demagoguery. “I don’t think there’s any candidate who’s spent more time on their feet talking to real people than I have,” Christie said.
And so he’ll take what he calls his “Tell It Like It Is” tour to two town halls in New Hampshire this week, in the warm-up act for a presidential campaign that none of us should regard too lightly. Chris Christie is ready, and it’s almost time to perform.