Steinhauser: Chris Christie's tough medicine on entitlements
GOFFSTOWN - Chris Christie kicked off a two day swing to New Hampshire with a sober prescription for tackling escalating entitlement spending.
In a scrum with reporters later on Tuesday, the New Jersey governor and probable Republican presidential candidate pushed back against descriptions of himself as a moderate, saying "I'm proud of my record and I stand by it." And he stuck with his timetable for a late May or June decision on whether he'll launch a White House campaign.
Christie also exhibited why he shouldn't be written off as a contender for the GOP nomination, showing off his skills as a master of retail politics, shaking hands and greeting voters along Elm Street in Manchester.
Christie began his day by outlining his tough medicine on entitlement reform at a speech at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College. His proposals included raising the retirement age for Social security to 69, means testing for Social Security, and gradually raising the eligibility age for Medicare.
"In the short term, it is growing the deficit and slowly but surely taking over all of government. In the long term, it will steal our children's future and bankrupt our nation. Meanwhile, our leaders in Washington are not telling people the truth. Washington is still not dealing with the problem," Christie said.
"Washington is afraid to have an honest conversation about Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid with the people of our country. I am not," the governor added.
Christie said that Social Security should be retirement insurance, and he proposed what he described as "modest" means testing.
"Let's ask ourselves an honest question: do we really believe that the wealthiest Americans need to take from younger, hardworking Americans to receive what, for most of them, is a modest monthly Social Security check? I propose a modest means test that only affects those with non-Social Security income of over $80,000 per year, and phases out Social Security payments entirely for those that have $200,000 a year of other income," Christie said.
He added that his proposal would only affect 2 percent of all Social Security recipients.
When it comes to Medicare, Christie would increase the current sliding scare of means testing.
"We should expand the sliding scale under my proposal. Seniors with an $85,000 a year income will pay 40% of premium costs and increasing it to 90% above $196,000 a year in retirement income, Christie said.
Christie later defended means testing, saying "I quite frankly think that my friend Mark Zuckerberg does not need to collect Social Security. Warren Buffett doesn't need to collect Social Security"
"If the system goes broke, seniors who are on the edge of poverty who don't get Social Security, their lives will be drastically changed. And I just think that everybody in this county is willing to contribute to the betterment of folks that the system is run fairly and efficiently and I believe that means testing for social security is an issue whose time has come."
Christie also proposed raising the retirement age for Social Security.
"I'm proposing we raise the age to 69, gradually implementing this change starting in 2022 and increasing the retirement age by two months each year until it reaches 69. I also believe we need to raise the early retirement age - people who take their retirement early -- at a similar pace, raising it by two months per year until it reaches 64 from the current level of 62," Christie
And he also called for raising the eligibility age for Medicare at what he described as "a manageable pace of one month per year, so that by 2040, you'd be eligible for Medicare at 67 years old, and by 2064 would be 69 years old. Raising the eligibility age, slowly so that people can plan for it, has another advantage. It encourages seniors to remain in the workforce."
Christie trained some of his fire on President Barack Obama, saying the president "has left us a debtor nation. In his short time in office, he has almost doubled the national debt - increasing it by over $8 trillion."
"It won't be easy to turn around the fiscal mess that Barack Obama has left us either. He has avoided the tough decisions. Imagine that the straightforward discussion I've just had with you today, President Obama has been afraid to have with you for the last eight years -- from the day he declared for president in February of 2007 to this very day," Christie added.
Christie ended his speech by touting that he's not afraid to tackle the difficult issues, like entitlement reform.
"Here's what you'll learn about me. I have been talking about the growth of entitlements as a big problem, at both the state and federal levels, for a number of years. Not because it is politically popular, but because it is true. And because it will affect everything we can do as a country to make this century the second American century. I will not pander. I will not flip flop. I'm not afraid to tell you the truth as I see it, whether you like it or not," Christie concluded.
After his speech, Christie and his wife Mary Pat headed to Caesario's Pizza on Elm Street in Manchester, greeting customers and heading behind the counter for pictures with the restaurant's owner and staff.
"I definitely made up my mind that I'm not voting for the Democrats," said owner Moshe Shpindler, who said he's an independent voter.
"We spoke to him (Christie) and he told us a little bit about his opinion about fighting terrorism and about fixing the economy, and I like it. I like what I heard."
Christie then headed out for an impromptu walk down Elm Street, Manchester's unofficial main street.
"Hey man. How we doing boys," he responded after a couple of guys started chanting Christie's name.
"I'm Chris Christie how are you. Congratulations on the Super Bowl," he said to a boy wearing a New England patriots jersey.
Christie shook hands and took photos with scores of people waiting in line for free ice cream at Manchester's Ben and Jerry's.
He also chatted with a young man who said he's recovering from substance abuse.
"I just want to know what you think about treatment," Christie was asked.
"I feel very strongly about treatment. Treatment's the way to go," the governor responded as he touted efforts he's implemented in New Jersey.
At a sidewalk news conference with reporters, Christie said he's not concerned about his lackluster poll numbers in the Garden State and across the country.
"My poll numbers over time have gone from 40's when I was first elected, to the 80's, the 60's, the 50's, the 40's. They're all over the place. It's because I speak my mind. And so people who may think They know me and understand me today may have a completely different impression six months from now, just like they had a completely different impression a year ago. So these things are all temporary snapshots in time," Christie said.
"None of that concerns me much at all. I've been up in polls and down in polls. What matters is who you are and how you present yourselves to people. And if I decide to do this, I'll take my chances."
In response to a question from NH1 News regarding his timetable for making a decision, Christie said "late May to June, late spring to early summer. I've got work to do in New Jersey. I'm trying to get pension reform done. I've got until June 30 for the legislature to be in session. I want to try to strike the appropriate balance between being out here and engaging in a national conversation which I want to do and I think is good for New Jersey and but also doing my job at home."
"I gotta find that right balance and making that decision is also about that right balance," he added.
And Christie rejected being labeled the moderate in a field of conservative GOP contenders.
"I've vetoed tax increases, we have $2.5 million less in discretionary spending today that we had eight years ago. I've balanced six budgets in a row. I've lowered the employee headcount in New Jersey by 8,500 employees in five years. I've vetoed Planned Parenthood funding. The fact is that those are all conservative positions. So no I don't feel like I'm moderate," Christie said.
"Unfortunately a lot of people determine who you are based on where you're from. So I'm a northeastern Republican who's a little ethnic, so people assume you're a moderate. Look at the record. I have a pretty conservative record and I'm proud of my record and I stand by it," he added.
Christie also suggested that he stands out from the rest of the GOP presidential candidates and potential White House hopefuls because "I've governed in a very difficult place that looks much more like Washington DC than anybody else has governed. I've dealt with a difficult Democratic legislature every day for the last five and a half years, and I've worked with them to forge compromises, to get things done. That's much more like Washington DC than a single party state, whether that's a single party Democratic state or a single party Republican state, and I think that differentiates me in terms of leadership style and accomplishment that I've put forward and that makes me much better prepared for Washington DC than somebody who's governed in a single party state."