The crowd at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington yesterday wasn’t there to see a governor deliver a policy speech. It was a crowd to see a presidential contender, a man who many believe is the only Republican who could take down Obama in 2012. Unfortunately, the presidential contender they were there to see has repeatedly said he has no interest in contending on a national level. At least not in 2012.
Chris Christie is enthralling because he says things that politicians aren’t supposed to say, takes on issues that politicians aren’t supposed to take on because they are politically too toxic. He goes after Teachers’ Unions that are destroying public education, he goes after unaffordable pensions, he takes on it all.
For many crowded into AEI to see the Christie enigma, the governor didn’t disappoint.
Christie called for immediate action. America, like New Jersey, can’t waste time on the little things. Not with the mounting financial challenges we face.
“During these times,” he declared, “it’s time to do the big things. The really big things.” He said the big things for New Jersey are similar to what they are for America: 1) restore fiscal sanity, 2) get pensions and health costs under control, and 3) reform an education system that “costs too much and produces too little.”
Christie talked about how, days after rolling out his pension and benefits reform proposal, he went to a firefighters convention in New Jersey and faced down 7,500 firefighters who weren’t particularly happy with his plan. His pension plan called for raising the retirement age, eliminating cost of living adjustments, increasing employee contributions, and rolling back an unaffordable 9% pension increase irresponsibly given years ago by a Republican governor and legislature.
According to Christie, they booed him, and booed him, and booed him.
“I understand you’re angry. And I understand you’re frustrated. And I understand you feel deceived and betrayed. And the reason you feel all those things is because you have been deceived and you have been betrayed. And for 20 years governors have come into this room and lied to you — promised you benefits they had no way of paying for, making promises they knew they couldn’t keep and just hoping they wouldn’t be the man or women just left holding the bag,” Christie told the unfriendly crowed. “I understand why you feel angry and betrayed and deceived by those people. Here is what I don’t understand: why are you booing the first guy that came in here and told you the truth?”
He then says he added, in typical Christie bluster that is so appealing to conservatives, “You may hate me now, but 15 years from now when you have a pension to collect because of what I did, you will be looking for my address on the internet to send me a thank you note.”
If you feel a tingle up your leg after reading that, you just may be a conservative — and you surely can understand why Chris Christie is so attractive as a person and a national candidate.
But has Chris Christie seriously ruled out a 2012 run?
After all, Christie says we have to move quickly to do the “big things” because time is running out. America’s fiscal situation is dire. By as early as 2017, Medicare will already be in the red.
So I asked the governor, when he opened up the floor at AEI to questions, that given he believes our moment of opportunity to fix our fiscal challenges is fading and given that by 2016 this window may have already closed, is there any scenario (perhaps if he doesn’t see the other GOP contenders talking about these issues as bluntly as he has) that he can construct where he could see himself changing course and actually entering the race for the White House?
“What do I have to do short of suicide to convince people I’m not running?” he chided me. “Apparently I actually have to commit suicide.”
Pretty strong denial. But despite his emphatic no, I still say don’t count Christie out. Not yet. Not as long as he hasn’t taken the suicide route.
Think about it.
If he believes that America’s fiscal condition is as bad as he laid out at AEI and if he believes that immediate, serious action is necessary to save the country from a fiscal calamity and if none of the current crop of 2012 contenders are talking about the drastic steps he is talking about (or at least none of the ones who could get elected are talking about it), and if polls continue to suggest he is in the best position to get elected if he ran, then he would almost be acting irresponsibly by not running, no? And considering all this, it would be justified for him to change course, to say that while he honestly didn’t want to run, it has become clear the choice is not up to him. His country needs his leadership and he won’t turn down his country.
Would this not make a powerful entry into the race?
This is Chris Christie’s moment and even if he is reluctant to grasp it, the tide of history may be too strong for even him to push back against it in the end.
WATCH: See Christie’s full answer to TheDC’s question about his presidential aspirations