Chris Christie is hoping that he can entitlement-cut his way to the GOP presidential nomination.
The New Jersey governor, once the leader in national polls, is now viewed as an underdog with little shot at winning. He kicks off his presidential campaign Tuesday on a blunt agenda that includes hikes in the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare benefits.
In addition to Christie's hope that this will earn him support from fiscal conservatives, he also hopes that his willingness to be so up-front about entitlement cuts will help restore his reputation as a straight-talker, which has been badly hurt by the Bridgegate scandal.
Christie's been in office since January 2010 and has taken a stand on many issues. Unsurprisingly for a Northeastern Republican, Christie is no culture warrior. But don't mistake him for a social liberal: he's pro-life and opposes same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, some of his more moderate past views — like his defense of New Jersey's tough gun laws and his support for a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants — have gone by the wayside lately, as Christie prepares to make his case to a national GOP primary electorate. And on foreign policy, Christie is one of the most hawkish candidates in the entire large Republican field.
Christie is emphasizing his willingness to make big changes to entitlement programs
Christie has said that his plans for entitlement reform will be at the center of his 2016 campaign. "Washington is afraid to have an honest conversation about Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid with the people of our country," he said in an April speech introducing his agenda. "I am not."
On Social Security, Christie proposed raising the retirement age to 69 (gradually, beginning in 2022), and the early retirement age to 64. Meanwhile, he'd reduce benefits for retirees who make over $80,000 a year in income, and end benefits entirely for those making over $200,000 a year. His plans for retirement age hikes have been criticized for hurting the poor, and people with unpleasant or physically demanding jobs, in exchange for relatively small benefit cuts for the rich.
For Medicare, Christie also proposed raising the eligibility age — to 67 by 2040, and 69 by 2064, to encourage "productive senior citizens to remain in the workforce." And on Medicaid, Christie supports block grants in which the federal government would send states "a fixed amount per enrollee." (Most GOP proposals to block grant Medicaid are accompanied by large cuts to the program.)
In private, Christie has sounded the same tune. "We know the answers. They're painful answers," he said in a secretly-recorded 2011 speech to a seminar for wealthy conservative donors hosted by the Koch brothers. "We're going to have to reduce Medicare benefits. We're going to have to reduce Medicaid benefits. We're going to have to raise the Social Security age. We're going to have to do these things."
While this pitch may be what wealthy donors want to hear, it's less clear that rank-and-file GOP voters will be receptive to it — in April, Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight ran down polling showing that Christie's proposals do not appear to be particularly popular among Republican voters (many of whom are seniors). So it's definitely a huge gamble for Christie to back this plan.
America must "sacrifice" to restore its role in the world
Christie's foreign policy views are strongly interventionist, and position him as one of the most hawkish candidates in the GOP's 2016 field. In a May 2014 foreign policy speech, Christie made an expansive case for intervention to promote American values abroad — and he said it wouldn't be easy. "We need to stand once again loudly for these values, and sometimes that is going to mean standing in some very messy, difficult places and standing strong and hard for those things that we believe in," Christie said. "And it will mean sacrifice from the people of our country."
Christie has particularly enjoyed contrasting his own views to those of Sen. Rand Paul. "This strain of libertarianism that's going through parties right now and making big headlines, I think, is a very dangerous thought," he said in 2013. He added that Paul and others had forgotten the lessons of 9/11: "I want them to come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and the orphans and have that conversation ... I'm very nervous about the direction this is moving in." In response, Paul said he was trying to grow the party by "appealing to people who would like to see a more moderate and less aggressive foreign policy."
In a speech this May, Christie said that "American power is in retreat," and that "we've backed away from the principles that made us a source of strength and stability." He blasted President Obama's effort to make a deal with Iran, and said we should "contain" Iran "with our moderate Sunni Arab allies, while at the same time rolling back the shadow of ISIS." In Europe, "our first task is to defend the Western alliance against Russian aggression," he said. On China, however, Christie argued that we shouldn't treat the country "like a foe," but said it should follow the rules of the global community and respect human rights. He also called for a defense buildup, and defended NSA surveillance.
A reputation as a corruption-fighter — and for some ethical controversies
Christie won a reputation as a corruption fighter during his tenure as New Jersey's US Attorney. Between 2002 and 2008, he won convictions or guilty pleas from 130 public officials in the famously corrupt state. This record, and Christie's promises of further reform, helped him win the governorship in 2009.
But since then, the indictment of two former Christie administration aides and the guilty pleas of another on charges related to Bridgegate have cast a pall over Christie's ethical reputation, as well as his presidential hopes. US Attorney Paul Fishman has accused the aides of deliberately paralyzing the town of Fort Lee with traffic to punish its mayor for not endorsing Christie's reelection in 2013. However, there's still no indication that Christie himself was aware in advance of this scheme.
Even before Bridgegate, though, Christie's ethical record as US Attorney was a matter of some controversy, due to his use of deferred prosecution agreements. When Christie accused corporations or large nonprofits of wrongdoing, he would sometimes agree not to prosecute them, as long as they hired federal monitors to reform their business practices. That seems reasonable, but the monitors were private sector attorneys who'd be paid millions of dollars, and Christie steered these no bid-contracts to his friends or political allies. (As part of one deferred prosecution agreement, he even got the drug company Bristol-Myers Squibb to pay $5 million to endow a business ethics professorship at his alma mater — leading the Justice Department to change their rules to ban such outside payments, as the Washington Post's Carol Morello and Carol Leonnig wrote.)
From gun control supporter to gun rights defender
When Christie first ran for office in 1993, challenging the Republican New Jersey state senate leader in a primary, he cited one key issue — his opposition to GOP attempts to repeal the state's assault weapons ban. Calling it "the issue which has energized me to get into the race," Christie said that "in today's society, no one needs a semi-automatic assault weapon," New Jersey reporters Bob Ingle and Michael Symons write in Chris Christie: The Inside Story of His Rise to Power. (After a signature-gathering screw-up, Christie was forced to end his campaign just nine days after he began it.)
In future campaigns and as governor, Christie downplayed gun issues, but, as his spokesperson said in 2014, continued to support "New Jersey's already tough gun laws." However, he chose to veto some bills to toughen gun restrictions sent to him by the Democratic state legislature, including a limit on ammunition magazine size and a ban on sales of .50 caliber rifles, arguing that the state's mental health system should be improved instead.
Funnily enough, just yesterday, Christie's administration suddenly announced new measures to ease access to guns — and prominently argued that "New Jersey's laws and regulations impose significant restrictions on an individual's ability to purchase, transport, carry, and use firearms within the State," according to Matt Friedman of NJ Advance Media. The announcement seems conveniently timed to appeal to the more conservative GOP primary electorate, rather than New Jersey voters, who are overall supportive of gun control.
Opposes same-sex marriage, but thinks Supreme Court decided the issue
Christie opposes same-sex marriage, saying he believes "marriage is between one man and one woman." He vetoed a 2012 bill that would have instituted it in New Jersey, suggesting the matter should be put up for a statewide vote instead. The following year, though, a state court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage — and though Christie initially appealed, he dropped it just weeks later, saying the appeal was doomed to failure because of the state Supreme Court's liberal majority.
When the US Supreme Court ruled for same-sex marriage on Friday, Christie made his opposition clear, though his statement was one of the least vituperative of the GOP 2016 contenders. "I think this is something that should be decided by the people of each state and not imposed upon them by a group of lawyers in black robes sitting at the U.S. Supreme Court," Christie said. "That being said, those five lawyers get to impose it under our system. And so our job is going to be to support the law of the land," he said, not indicating any desiring to fight the ruling, like other hopefuls have suggested. "But I don’t agree with the way it’s been done."
Used to support a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, but now opposes it
In 2010, Christie said on ABC's "This Week" that the president and Congress should "put forward a commonsense path to citizenship for people." But in the years since, and particularly after immigration reform stalled in Congress due to conservative opposition, Christie has maintained a strategic vagueness on the subject, as National Journal's Karyn Bruggeman recounts.
And now, this May, Christie announced he'd changed his views — saying on Fox News that after getting "educated on these issues," he now believed citizenship for unauthorized immigrants was an "extreme way to go." In the same interview, he said he would reverse President Obama's executive actions on immigration. However, he still indicated that he'd push for some sort of immigration reform, saying, "We need to have an intelligent conversation about this and bring the American people along to where we can find consensus."
Christie also initially opposed a New Jersey proposal to give the children of unauthorized immigrants in-state tuition rates at public universities, but eventually signed a 2013 bill to do so (while vetoing a provision that would have made them eligible for financial aid).
An opponent of tax hikes, and a grim fiscal picture
When Christie first took office, New Jersey faced a $1.3 billion budget shortfall. He managed to close that gap in the short-term through spending cuts — and when the Democratic legislature sent him a bill that would tax millionaires, he vetoed it. "I said, 'Take this back where it came from, 'cuz I ain't signin' it,'" Christie bragged at the Koch brothers seminar. He said that he opposed tax hikes and that he'd instead cut spending the state just couldn't afford. "There's one simple truth: we cannot and should not spend money we don't have."
But though long-term fiscal problems continued to loom in the state, as soon as the short-term budget picture brightened a bit in 2012, Christie was sounding a little less concerned about shortfalls. All of a sudden, he proposed to cut all income tax rates by 10 percentage points — which would have cost the state $1.1 billion by 2016. "Every New Jerseyan deserves a tax cut," Christie said, arguing that lower tax rates would help attract more businesses. When the legislature's nonpartisan budget analyst said that this would make revenues fall dramatically short, Christie mocked him and suggested that he be fired. (The budget analyst's numbers turned out to be right on.) Christie's income tax plan didn't pass, but the state has fallen into a deep fiscal hole anyway.
A convert to the pro-life cause
When Christie first tried to start his political career, he described himself as "pro-choice," and said he was a donor to Planned Parenthood. But he later said that after hearing his unborn daughter's heartbeat in 1995, he changed his view. "I heard that heartbeat. That's a life," he later told CNN. "And I've been pro-life ever since." There have been questions about the accuracy of that conversion story, but during his gubernatorial campaigns and governorship, Christie has been clear that he's pro-life. Indeed, he now supports banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Believes in climate change, but has been criticized for his environmental record
One way Christie differs from the rest of the GOP field? He endorses the scientific consensus that humans cause climate change. "I think global warming is real. I don't think that's deniable. And I do think human activity contributes to it," Christie said this May. Still, his administration's record on regulatory issues has been heavily criticized by environmentalists, who say he is too pro-business, and has deregulated polluting industries. His administration also came under fire for its decision this year to settle a major pollution case involving ExxonMobil, in which the state sought $8.9 billion in damages, for just $250 million.
A foe of teachers unions and a supporter of school choice
Christie has been well-known for clashing with teachers unions (and, often, individual teachers) in New Jersey, over both money and tenure, as Darrel Isherwood of NJ.com has written. Recently, he said that the unions "put the comfort of adults ahead of the potential of our kids," and complained that their "power" has "prevented us from instituting quality-based layoffs." He supports expanding school choice, including charter schools as well as vouchers for students in low-performing schools (which he hasn't been able to pass).
While he had previously supported the Common Core standards, he decided to ditch them for New Jersey this May. "It's now been five years since Common Core was adopted," Christie said, "and the truth is that it's simply not working. It has brought only confusion and frustration to our parents, and has brought distance between our teachers and the communities where they work."
For higher education, Christie also pointed to student debt as a major problem in a speech this June. He argued for expanding Pell Grants and other aid programs for lower-income people, and proposed a program where students would repay lenders with a share of their income once they graduate, rather than a set dollar amount. However, he came out against President Obama's proposal that community college should be free, saying, "We know there is nothing free in this world," as the New York Times' Nick Corasaniti recounted.