Is Chris Christie, the plain-speaking 49-year-old Republican governor of New Jersey, running for the highest office the land – or not?
After an intense swirl of speculation over the past few days, and after being asked about it directly tonight by two audience members during the question-and-answer session that followed his speech about American exceptionalism at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California – we still don’t know.
“A lot of people have asked me about this over the [past] weeks and months,” said Christie in response to a questioner who “implored” him to reconsider running for the White House. “I hear exactly what you’re saying. I feel that passion with which you say it. And it touches me. [But] I’m just a kid from Jersey, who feels like he’s the luckiest guy in the world to be the governor of my state.”
Christie continued in response to that same questioner, “It’s extraordinarily flattering, but that heartfelt message you gave me is not a reason for me to do it. That reason has to reside within me. I know without ever having met President Reagan” – and here he looked at Nancy Reagan, who was sitting in the front row of the assembled audience – “that he must have felt deeply in his heart that he was called to lead our country… So thank you for what you’re saying. I take it in and I’m listening. It’s a great honor. I’m extraordinarily flattered. Thank you very much.”
In his closely watched speech tonight – streamed live over the Internet by the Reagan Library website – Christie discussed in his prepared remarks how American exceptionalism might “deliver hope and a sterling example to the rest of the world.” He was invited to talk at the Reagan Library by Nancy Reagan.
His visit to California came during a week in which he is also said to be holding seven fundraisers.
In one of his standout lines of the night, Christie said, “There is no better place in the world for investment” than the United States.
“A lot is being said in this election season about American exceptionalism,” said Christie. “Implicit in such statements is that we are different and, yes, better, in the sense that our democracy, our economy and our people have delivered. But for American exceptionalism to truly deliver hope and a sterling example to the rest of the world, it must be demonstrated, not just asserted. If it is demonstrated, it will be seen and appreciated and ultimately emulated by others. They will then be more likely to follow our example and our lead.”
Christie also said, “At one time in our history, our greatness was a reflection of our country’s innovation, our determination, our ingenuity and the strength of our democratic institutions. When there was a crisis in the world, America found a way to come together to help our allies and fight our enemies. When there was a crisis at home, we put aside parochialism and put the greater public interest first. And in our system, we did it through strong presidential leadership. We did it through Reagan-like leadership.
“Unfortunately, through our own domestic political conduct of late,” he continued, in a pointed reference to President Obama, “we have failed to live up to our own tradition of exceptionalism. Today, our role and ability to affect change has been diminished because of our own problems and our inability to effectively deal with them.
“I understand … that succeeding at home, setting an example, is not enough. The United States must be prepared to act. We must be prepared to lead. This takes resources — resources for defense, for intelligence, for homeland security, for diplomacy. [But] the United States will only be able to sustain a leadership position around the world if the resources are there, if the foundations of the American economy are healthy. So our economic health is a national security issue as well.”
Throughout the approximately 45-minute speech, Christie said that American exceptionalism isn’t “a re-election strategy.” He said that this country needs to “lead the world because of what we have been able to actually accomplish.”
David Winston, a GOP political strategist, told The Fiscal Times on Tuesday afternoon before the speech: “[Christie] is a major figure. But his impact on the primary race at this point is unclear.”
And Democratic political consultant Brad Bannon said, “[Rick] Perry’s implosion in Florida has accelerated the pace of the ABR – ‘Anybody But Romney’ – movement, which wants to find a real conservative to bear the Tea Party standard next November against President Obama… Christie is the one Republican candidate that both wings of the Republican Party would find acceptable.”
Christie’s speech tonight, part of the Reagan Library’s “Perspectives on Leadership Forum,” was a sold-out $75-a-person event. The fee included a served dinner after the lecture in the Library’s Air Force One Pavilion. Christie accepted the invitation to speak at Nancy Reagan’s request.
Other notable comments from the New Jersey governor during the Q&A portion of the event:
On Immigration and Education Expense:
“Our borders have to be secure. We’ve done an awful job of doing that. We have to make sure we have a fair way to continue to allow people to immigrate into this country and in a way that makes sense.” The governor said he wants “every child who comes to N.J. to be educated.” But for those who enter illegally, Christie said, we should not be “subsidizing [their education] with taxpayer money.”
“Public sector pensions and health benefits [in New Jersey] were underfunded by $120 billion, four times our annual state budget,” when he came into office, said Christie. “In September, 2010, I put out a specific plan… I said to public sector union members, ‘You’re going to have to contribute more, significantly more, to your pension systems.’ And on the health insurance side, for public sector workers in New Jersey, many were paying nothing. Now everyone has to pay a percentage of their premiums, on a sliding scale…
“I made a lot of people unhappy with that,” continued Christie, especially “firefighters.” He described a meeting with about 4,000 firefighters shortly after he made that announcement. “In essence, I [told them], ‘I understand you’re angry… Every year [the politicians] voted for increased benefits for you, and they never put any money into it. But here’s what I don’t understand. Why are you booing the first guy who told you the truth?’” He added that coming to grips with the fiscal realities of entitlements is “what we need to do on the federal level. Tell people the truth. Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are eating away [at our budget]… I’m no genius. Clearly. But here’s the thing. Why can’t we do that? Because every time someone gets near that, they get vilified. And then they read the polls. But real leaders don’t read polls. They change polls.”