New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is being puffed up by many conservatives as the refreshing, straight-talking principled budget slasher that could lead a nationwide right-wing resurgence. Yesterday, conservatives drooled as Christie gave a trademark performance at the American Enterprise Institute conservative think tank.
"Performance" is the operative word. There is nothing straight about Christie's talk.
Far from refreshing, Christie's main brand of politics is the well-worn practice of scapegoating, under the guise of, in his words, "doing the big things and being courageous."
Public employees are Christie's favorite whipping posts. He regaled AEI with the tale of when he visited a firefighters convention the day he proposed to raise their retirement age, eliminate cost-of-living increases, increase employee pension contributions and scrap a previously approved 9% increase in benefits.
As I walked into the room and was introduced I was booed lustily. I made my way up to the stage they booed some more. I got to the microphone they booed some more. So I said come on you can do better than that and they did! They did!
But Christie assured, he doesn't hate the firefighters and other union employees. He only hates the union leaders:
See one of things that the public sector unions don't understand about my approach in New Jersey is that they think I'm attacking them. I'm attacking the leadership of the union. Because they're greedy and they're selfish and self-interested. The members of that union are being ill-served by the leadership of that union.
Christie did not bother to explain how the greedy union leaders are to blame for the state not making annual payments to the pension fund, for private health insurers jacking up health care costs which squeezes pensions, and for a deregulated Wall Street plunging the economy into a deep recession and damaging pension investments.
Nor did he explain how slashing pension benefits across the board -- hitting both union and nonunion civil servants -- only penalizes those greedy union leaders.
Nor did he acknowledge that these pension issues can be solved without sputtering contempt for union members, but with calm discussions with union members, as Vermont recently accomplished with its teachers union -- trading increased employee contributions now for additional pension benefits later.
But as Chris Christie will tell you, he only speaks the "truth." Watch the truthiness as he explains why we must slash Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Let me tell you what the truth is. What's the truth that no one is talking about ... You're going to have to raise the retirement age for Social Security. Oh I just said it, and I'm still standing here! I did not vaporize into the carpeting and I said it!
We have to reform Medicare because it costs too much and it is going to bankrupt us. Once again, lightning did not come through the windows and strike me dead.
And we have to fix Medicaid because it's not only bankrupting the federal government, it's bankrupting every state government.
So very "courageous" of him to tell us we "have to" cut retirement benefits of everyone. That is far braver that noting you can strengthen Social Security's long-term solvency without cutting benefits, by lifting the payroll tax cap on high-incomes.
But that would require the courage to tell the wealthiest to accept a tax increase.
And it was so brave of him to embrace saving money in Medicare, since the President's health reform law does just that without harming benefits, even though Republicans cravenly attacked the cost-savings as "$500 billion cut."
Oh right, Christie didn't have the "courage" to tell his party that the President of the other party already tackled Medicare reform.
And Medicaid is simply not bankrupting anything. The expansion of Medicaid to cover more Americans in the health reform law will lower the states' overall costs. The federal government is largely paying for it -- within an overall health reform plan which cuts the deficit -- and because the expansion brings in more younger, healthier people into the system.
Of course, if you wanted to save even more money, you could propose a public health insurance option and courageously fight the health insurance industry. Or propose empowering Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices and courageously fight the drug industry.
But Chris Christie idea of "courage" is to propose having retirees survive on less, and allowing fewer people to have access to health insurance.
This sort of dishonesty and false machismo is nothing new. But what particularly struck me in Christie's speech was his deep disdain for the bedrock public investments America needs to create jobs, revitalize our infrastructure and avert a climate crisis.
[President Obama] says the big things are high-speed rail. Tthe big things are high speed internet access for almost 80% of America, or something, by some date. One million electric cars on the road by some date. Ladies and gentlemen, that is the candy of American politics. Those are not the big things.
More jobs + safe environment + vibrant economy = Candy.
Instead, Christie literally says the "big things" are weakening retirement security and providing less health care. And he wraps up this dark vision of austerity as what will "lead America to another century of exceptionalism."
He cleverly dismisses the President's big goals for the future by glibly fumbling the goals themselves, "80 percent or something by some date." As if having a goal, a target, a plan is more governmental nonsense.
But that is the sort of tic, showing his lack of seriousness towards governing, that reveals the sham Christie is.
He's the one weakening the pension system by not funding it. He's the one driving up health insurance premiums by cutting Medicaid.
And he's the one failing have an honest conversation about these big issues by claiming the answer that harms the most people is the only answer.