The Agenda

Christieism in 2012

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has announced (yet again) that he’s not running for president, only this time people are pretty sure that he means it. That is probably a good thing.

But as I argue in my latest column for The Daily, there is such a thing as “Christieism” that is separate and distinct from Christie himself:

There is a reason so many Republicans across the country badly want Chris Christie to run for president. He might be the only man in America who can make the case for conservatism in clear and compelling language. It’s not just that the New Jersey governor has a plainspoken and often combative style, though that’s a part of it. Rather, it is that he connects the burden of a bloated and inefficient government with the everyday struggles of working Americans. 

At a town hall meeting last year, reporter Jason Zengerle of New York caught Christie talking about the lives and aspirations of New Jersey’s middle-class families. These are the families that, Christie explained, have remained in the Garden State out of love, despite the fact that “there’s no good financial reason for us to be staying.” Yet he feared that his children, and the children of the women and men in the crowd, might find that a New Jersey life is out of reach. “They’ll be forced to make the choice to go someplace else, where it’s easier to find a job, where it’s less expensive to live, where they’re going to build a new life that’ll be apart from us.” Cue the sound of a hundred hearts breaking.

But Christie’s message wasn’t just schmaltz. It is the reality of life in states and cities across the country where the ballooning cost of government is forcing huge tax increases. Progressives like Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren want to talk about who pays taxes — is it you or the rich? Conservatives like Christie, in contrast, ask what is actually being done with tax dollars. If government is being run as efficiently as possible, well, maybe we do need to hike taxes. But if government is plagued by featherbedding, sweetheart deals and a lack of transparency that makes it easy for insiders to waste millions and even billions of dollars, government needs to clean up its act before demanding higher taxes from any American family, middle-class or otherwise.

What Christie’s critics don’t understand is that his battles over pensions and rigid work rules and infrastructure cost overruns aren’t about waging war on government. They’re really about building a brighter future for the next generation. By curbing the appetites of an out-of-control public sector, with its army of politically powerful employees, he’s been trying to refocus state and local governments in New Jersey on actually delivering the services that working families depend on at a price they can actually afford. 

And my conclusion is as follows:

Whether or not Chris Christie runs for president, this is the message Republicans need to articulate in the 2012 election: not anti-government, but better government. Not opposed to a safety net that helps working Americans get back on their feet, but against entitlements so inefficient and expensive that they crowd out everything else we want to achieve as a country.

There is at least one Republican contender other than Christie who has a track record as a Mr. Fix-It in both business and government. As governor of Massachusetts, he proved innovative, nimble and smart. He’s had a great deal of fundraising success and he’s performed exceptionally well in recent debates. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm for the New Jersey governor demonstrates that conservatives want and expect more from Mitt Romney. The time has come for him to step up his game, or watch as Chris Christie seizes the moment.

The question now is whether Mitt Romney will rise to the occasion. We’ll soon find out. 

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