With all the crazy talk of President Barack Obama being the antichrist, it’s sort of amusing that the anti-Obama is a guy named Christie.
To understand the political force sweeping our country, one need only search the words “Chris Christie” on YouTube. The New Jersey governor’s town hall appearances have received hundreds of thousands of hits and glowing comments because the man, like Ronald Reagan before him, has an uncanny ear for what troubles Americans.
The truth is, a mensch like Christie could never have emerged in American politics if super-slick Obama had not enraged so many Americans first. If Jimmy Carter created Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama created Chris Christie.
Americans put their faith in a cocky Obama who wowed “The View” crowd in a bathing suit. But he gave us a government that didn’t know its own boundaries, defied common sense and fueled anxieties in post-financial crash America. Now the people of New Jersey have put their faith in a man who looks like the rest of us in a bathing suit.
Democrats might like to believe that the backlash embodied in the Tea Party movement is nothing more than a carnival of fools, headed for nowhere. But Christie is in touch with the national sense of unease that animates the Tea Party movement, and at town hall-type gatherings he has shown a grittiness that as drama surpasses the best reality TV shows.
On June 15th, Christie appeared at a town hall meeting in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. The crowd assembled was hardly a stereotypical BMW-driving Republican audience, looking like a group that could represent any small town in America
One senses that these Americans rarely gather all in one place, and that when they do, the gravity of the moment is palpable to them. And then Christie says, “our way of life is being challenged by an economy where we have too much debt, too big a government, too much spending and taxes being too high. We all know it in our hearts…we all understand that the day of reckoning is here.” And while he speaks, the people gather -- even Wilda Diaz, the Democratic mayor, seem to nod in agreement.
As Christie concludes that the people in that room have a chance, that “we are going to be the people who fixed New Jersey’s problems,” the audience members have the same look on their faces that the troops have in the old war movies, just as Sarge tells them that they probably will not succeed, but they are going to charge up the hill and attack the machine gun nest anyway.
And attack he does. One of Christie’s most popular YouTube moments is a confrontation with an angry teacher, who upbraids him for not paying her enough. When Christie replies that if she doesn’t like the pay package “then you don’t have to do it,” the crowd cheers like the Giants just scored a touchdown.
Whether the New Jersey governor becomes a genuine national political phenomenon will depend on his fixing at least some of what ails the state. The task is a big one. After defeating Democratic incumbent, Jon Corzine, Christie inherited a budget deficit of $2.2 billion, which was projected to expand to $10.7 billion next year -- 28 percent of the budget.
But Christie seems to be on the right path. Following the Reagan playbook, Christie has shunned higher taxes, which are already stratospheric in New Jersey, and has attacked the state’s expenditures. In the first six months of his tenure, he has eliminated roughly $13 billion in planned spending by enacting a wide range of freezes and cuts. These included reducing aid to schools and municipalities by $820 million and $466 million respectively, and forgoing a $3 billion contribution to state pensions.
Christie’s cuts to school funding have earned him the enmity of the state teachers’ union, with 200,000 members. The governor asked teachers to agree to a one-year salary freeze and to kick in 1.5 percent of their pay to help fund their health care insurance -- most of the state’s teachers don’t contribute to their plans.
Teachers in many school districts refused. As he had threatened during discussions with the unions, Christie called on constituents to vote down local school board budgets that didn’t conform to his requests. Christie won the public fight. A surprising 58 percent of proposed budgets were defeated, making it the largest number of rejections on state record.
Just as Reagan did in 1981, when he faced off with the air traffic controllers union, Christie called the bluff and seems to have won.
Reagan became on overwhelming political force because of his ability to appeal to audiences beyond his natural constituency, as Christie did at that Perth Amboy gathering. Christie clearly has the same knack, and will become an irresistible political force if New Jersey can recover.
It is an open question whether it will, but if it does, then the Republican Party may have found a real star.
(Kevin Hassett, director of economic-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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