Lots of people tout Republican Gov. Chris Christie to run against President Obama next year. That's the conventional-wisdom way of looking at the first-term New Jersey chief executive. And it's dead wrong.
It's wrong because the rules are changing. The 2012 race is not the one for Christie.
That's because he's conducting a national seminar demonstrating that the politics of tough love are now the key to earning voter respect. He hasn't perfected it yet, but he's way ahead of everybody else in understanding this reality, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
But Christie needs to finish the job he's in now, which he can't do if he seeks the White House in 2012. Most voters just want the unvarnished truth from leaders who actually do what they promise. Christie promised to finish the job in New Jersey. Failing to do so would seriously damage his credibility, perhaps irretrievably.
The latest Internet video of Christie responding to an unhappy New Jersey policeman during a recent town hall meeting illustrates the appeal of the politics of tough love. The policeman is upset because Christie's reforms mean he now has to pay a third of the cost of his health insurance and his automatic pay raises are capped at 2 percent.
“How am I supposed to afford … paying those health care costs?” the policeman asks.
“You're not,” Christie quickly responds, “you're going to have make choices among health care plans … like everybody else is having to make choices, everyone is having to make those choices.” The crowd erupts in applause.
Christie then lays out the stark facts about the fiscal situation facing every New Jersey jurisdiction: “Three out of every four dollars that are spent in every jurisdiction now is for labor costs. We can't afford it anymore,” he says. It's the same for most states and the federal government, too.
Christie pulls no punches, noting that 45 Camden police officers were recently laid off “because that contract with the police union in Camden is obscene. Shift differentials, people getting an additional 11 or 12 percent just for showing up to work. Paid birthday off.”
He pointed to a similar contract in Parsipity that let union members accumulate sick leave and be paid for the days they don't use when they retire. “You had four police officers in Parsipity the other day that cashed out their sick leave for $900,000 at their retirement,” he said, drawing gasps from the audience, then sustained applause when he said government employees shouldn't be paid for sick leave they didn't take.
It used to be that challenging government employee unions wasn't worth the political sacrifice, except in solidly Republican districts. Not anymore. The politics of tough love require calling the unions' bluff, as when Christie notes that the mayor of Camden told the police union it had to make concessions or face multiple layoffs as the city confronted its massive budget deficit.
“They said you'll never do it. She did it because she's got no choice,” Christie said. Again, his audience applauded, at length.
“We have to reorient our expectations here, this isn't 10 years ago, this is not a booming economy with 5 and 6 and 7 percent growth … we can't afford this stuff anymore, we can't,” he said. It's the same everywhere in America.
Christie's timing is unfortunately off for a White House run, but he can still give the nation an invaluable gift if he finishes his work in New Jersey — a road map for restoring sanity in government from top to bottom.
Mark Tapscott is editorial page editor of The Washington Examiner and proprietor of Tapscott's CopyDesk blog on washingtonexaminer.com