When I last spoke to Chris Christie in 2009 he was locked in a primary battle for the New Jersey governorship with an opponent who claimed he was insufficiently conservative. He was brimming then with ideas about cutting employee benefits, holding the line on taxes and making New Jersey business-friendly. At the time, many couldn’t help but think, “Yeah, right. In New Jersey?” Today, the governor stands on the cusp of a budget victory that can be described as historic or gigantic. Choose your adjective, but the numbers speak for themselves.
Christie says that the budget, which is expected to pass the New Jersey legislature later today, is “going to save $130 billion over 30 years. We’re touching all the third rails.” He then reels off the list of reforms in the employee entitlement area: “raising the retirement age, increasing employee contributions, ending COLA until the plans are healthy.” The reforms will also improve management of the funds and increase choices for employees.
He recalls, “These are all things they said you couldn’t do, yet we are getting them done.” Those accustomed to hearing Christie pugnaciously respond to the media and to teachers unions might be surprised to hear him lavish praise on the Democratic leadership in the state legislature. He says Senate President Stephen Sweeney “has been talking about this issue since 2006. He finally found a willing partner in the governor.” Likewise, he credits the speaker of the assembly, Sheila Oliver, with “courage” for backing real fiscal reform. He says dryly this week that a union boss called him “Adolf Christie” and Democratic leaders “Nazi generals in Christie’s army.”
Christie says it really came down to acknowledging the extent of the problem. New Jersey was in the hole, $54 billion in the retirement plan and $76 billion in the employee health-care plan. There was an essential period of public education, he recalls. “I spent the last nine months talking about it,” he says. He is pointed in his criticism of the feds’ inability to do the same: “Everyone wants to demagogue everyone else. That may be good politics, but it’s awful policy.” He isn’t shy about pointing out the difference in approach between President Obama and himself: “President Obama hasn’t shown leadership on these issues. Until he does, no one has any incentive to do anything.”
I remind him that he has said that he wasn’t ready for the presidency. Does his accomplishment on the budget suggest that maybe he is? “Nah,” he laughs. “But I admire the effort.” While he insists that this has always been just about New Jersey, he does allow: “I am not oblivious to the national implications.” In a state that, he hastens to remind me, “has 700,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans,” he can chalk up an accomplishment that is so far unmatched by any other governor. Nevertheless, he points to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who’s trying to enact the same sort of fiscal reform and spending restraint as Christie did in New Jersey. “I think Washington is going to look at these two accomplishments,” he predicts, “and they’re going to ask, ‘Why can’t Washington get it done?’ ”
He stresses that the key ingredient was not merely the particulars of the budget. “It was the specifics and the way we went about it. We all took risks. This is an example for President Obama, Senator Reid, the speaker [of the House] and for Nancy Pelosi, too,” he tells me.
Christie points out that while bond-rating companies are pointing to storm clouds for the federal government, the budget deal “will help our bond rating, which will be important for debt holders and will help us when we need to borrow money in the future.” By curtailing spending, Christie says the deal “will also help rein in property taxes.”
Most important, he says, “it is going to enhance our business environment.” He lists companies that have either agreed to consolidate their North American headquarters ( BASF, Bayer) in New Jersey or to open plants (e.g. a Coca-Cola bottling plant). He says, “When I got here, Honeywell had one foot out the door. Now they’ve agree to keep their headquarters here and expand by a thousand jobs.”
He is quick to respond “Medicaid” when I ask him what area of federal entitlement reform would be the most helpful to the states. He argues that the states should not have to “ask ‘Mother, may I’ each time we want to make a small change.” He says that while states have no control over the program, “we’re paying 50 percent of the cost.” He is emphatic that the states could provide services at less cost “if they’d [the feds] take the leash off” and allow states to manage their own services to the poor. It’s not a partisan issue, he says, pointing to the Democratic governor of Washington, who just got a Medicaid waiver that amounts to a block grant.
Has he found a presidential candidate he is willing to back? “Nope.” He explains: “Campaigns matter. How people perform matters. I know most of them — not Ron Paul, but most of them.” He says has “great respect” for those running. Still, “nobody yet has stood out that I’d like to get behind.” He doesn’t rule out the possibility of an endorsement, however. “I’m not a wallflower,” he cracks, promising to speak up if such a candidate comes along.
He is going to Iowa, he lets on, at the invitation of the governor. But just to talk about education reform, he assures me. Other than that he has no travel plans for the summer. Still, his impact is being felt. ”I had calls from two governors,” he tells me. They want to get the budget and a briefing. “We’re going to hear more of that,” he says, noting that around the country the states have accumulated about a trillion dollars in entitlement liability.
Christie, it seems, is sincere that 2012 is not his year for a presidential run. But he’s at pains to reinforce what has slowly become clear in New Jersey: Far from being a rock-and-sock-’em partisan he’s figured out how to pass bipartisan, sweeping reform with no tax hikes and in the face of hostile unions and media. That’s an impressive item on the resume, whether for vice president or for president, if not for 2012, then perhaps for 2016.