It seems less and less likely that New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, could be a viable contender for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2016.
Christie hasn’t announced a candidacy yet but is campaigning in the early voting states Iowa and New Hampshire. He is staking his bid — as Christie puts it — on “telling it like it this,” arguing that popular entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, which finance health care and pensions for the elderly, respectively, need to be overhauled.
“My goal for Social Security and Medicare is to make sure it’s there for the people who need it,” Christie said in New Hampshire this week. “The system won’t survive any other way.”
Independent forecasts have long shown both programs are headed for bankruptcy yet many politicians shy away from proposing reforms for fear of losing support.
Christie proposes to raise premiums for Medicare as well as the eligibility age for Social Security, currently set to rise to 67. He also wants to cut benefits for upper-income seniors.
It’s unclear if Christie’s willingness to take on entitlements will help his popularity at a time when the economy is picking up and fewer Americans see the need for drastic changes.
Last month, his approval rating in New Jersey hit a 35 percent low.
The governor’s tough talk, refreshing when he was first elected in 2010, is increasingly seen as abrasive.
He also hasn’t fully recovered from allegations made in 2013 that his staffers deliberately created a traffic jam in Fort Lee, across the Hudson River from New York City, in retribution for the city’s mayor’s refusal to endorse Christie for reelection. Investigations have so far cleared the governor of involvement.
Perhaps most damaging is the fact that Christie’s record as a reform-minded governor in a traditionally Democratic-voting state has started to look less impressive.
His battles with New Jersey’s teachers unions, who resisted his efforts to weaken tenure, were hailed by conservatives. So were his attempts to reduce an $11 billion budget deficit with spending cuts alone. Christie vetoed income tax increases and capped property taxes. He also made pensions more affordable.
Yet there’s still an $800 million gap in the state’s budget this year. New Jersey is also still one of the heaviest taxed states in the union. And its credit rating has been downgraded nine time since Christie took office.
Unemployment has come down from a 9.8 percent high in early 2010 but, at 6.3 percent in December, remains above the national average.
If Christie does run, he could split the centrist conservative vote at the detriment of the presumptive nominee, Jeb Bush.
Although the former Florida governor is less of a moderate than his detractors allow, his calm demeanor and policy-focused speeches fail to enthuse many of base conservatives who turn out disproportionately to vote in presidential primaries. More fiery opponents like Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul may not appeal to a majority of Republicans, nor are they likely to win a general election, but one of them could end up with a plurality of the votes if Bush and Christie must compete for the support of the more pragmatic wing of the party.