Christie Links Entitlement Reform to Presidential Campaign
Policy + Politics

Christie Links Entitlement Reform to Presidential Campaign

© Yuri Gripas / Reuters

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) told leading GOP policy analysts this week that he will make overhauling Medicare, Social Security and other long-term entitlement programs a centerpiece of his likely presidential campaign, according to participants in the talks.

Christie’s decision to embrace a politically risky campaign theme is central to an attempt to revive his wilting national prospects, according to people familiar with his plans. By casting himself in the coming months as a blunt truth-teller on issues that some in his party have resisted tackling, Christie hopes to win support among conservatives who have been reluctant to back him and are unsure of his rationale for running.

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But voters have long been wary of attempts by politicians in both parties to cut popular entitlement programs, which account for about half of all federal spending. Christie himself has expanded Medicaid as governor, calling it “the right decision for New Jersey.”

Christie made his intentions clear Monday in a conference call with former Republican administration officials and a former senior adviser to House GOP leaders. Over the course of nearly two hours, Christie indicated that he is planning to run a campaign focused on the nation’s fiscal health and recommending sweeping structural reforms.

According to Republicans briefed on the call, Christie said he is in the midst of finalizing his 2016 platform, which is aimed at carving out space for him in the early Republican field as a budget hawk from a blue state. The strategy would put him in competition with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and other Republican rivals who have put fiscal matters at the forefront of their messages.

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Those participating in the session included James C. Capretta, an associate director of the White House Office of Management and Budget in the George W. Bush administration; Todd G. Buchholz, a director of economic policy in George H.W. Bush’s White House; Neil Bradley, a former policy guru for House Republicans; and Lanhee Chen, Mitt Romney’s policy director during the 2012 campaign. Robert E. Grady, a longtime Christie strategist, moderated the exchange.

Maria Comella, a Christie aide, declined to comment.

But several Christie allies — who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss Christie’s deliberations — said the brash Garden State governor is eager to return to the political issues and persona that made him a national star in 2010, when he battled with public employees over pensions and benefits at town-hall meetings.

By targeting federal entitlements, he believes he can remind skeptical Republicans why many of them cheered him five years ago, the allies said.

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Christie has acknowledged to friends that he needs to do more to make it back to the top tier of the GOP field, especially if a large group of Republican donors remains wary. Damaged by an ongoing controversy over the politically motivated closure of traffic lanes on a major New Jersey bridge, Christie has watched as Walker and former Florida governor Jeb Bush have gained support from donors and surged in the polls.

Christie’s confidants have been passing around copies of a 2011 speech the governor delivered at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington as a primer of where Christie wants to go, according to Republicans in touch with his camp. In that speech, Christie urged Congress to “raise the age for Social Security” and warned that he would campaign against Republicans who did not call for drastic changes to Medicare.

“If people who I campaigned for don’t stand up and do the right thing, the next time they will see me in their district is with my arm around their primary opponent,” he said.

David Winston, a Republican pollster, said Christie could be credible “if he could define a success at the state level and talk about how it’s potentially applicable” to the U.S. government.

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But he cautioned that most voters are more concerned with jobs than with revamping Medicare and Social Security. “Those are important issues, but the electorate is looking at how to get the economy moving,” Winston said.

Christie’s fiscal record has been mixed in New Jersey, where unions continue to contest his policies in court and Moody’s Investors Service says the state faces $83 billion in unfunded pension liabilities.

His stumbles also have created significant difficulties for Christie with GOP primary voters, according to recent polls. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey released this week showed 57 percent of Republicans nationally said they would not be able to support him. “He is no longer a viable candidate,” wrote Peter D. Hart, one of the poll’s directors.

Still, Christie’s political advisers, led by Mike DuHaime and William J. Palatucci, are confident that Christie can fight his way back into contention. This week, Christie donors and advisers launched a super PAC to bolster his efforts. It allows his supporters to raise unlimited sums of money.

Related: Christie's Presidential Prospects on a Steady Slide

Christie’s annual budget address in Trenton last month was a test run of sorts for a national push. Before the speech, his office released a video trailer that used quick cuts, an orchestral score and a flashing slogan: “The time is now #ForOurFuture.”

But Rick Shaftan, a conservative political consultant based in New Jersey, said tea party activists are unlikely to warm to Christie, regardless of how he frames his record. “It’s a little late now,” Shaftan said in an interview Friday. “His state is broke. If he’s going to tell the truth about something, he should file for Chapter 11.”

This article originally appeared in The Washington Post.

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