Chris Christie began his much-awaited remarks at the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington recently with an anecdote that seemed to portend some tough talk for his fellow Republicans.
In his early days as governor of New Jersey, Christie recalled, a looming fiscal crisis forced him to confront the state’s powerful public employee unions, who enjoyed benefits so generous that they were bankrupting the state. Christie had to trim pensions and benefits to put New Jersey on a sound fiscal footing.
Obviously, the unions were unhappy. They booed when Christie met them face-to-face at a firefighters’ convention. But, as Christie recounted to CPAC, he had to tell the hard truth about the state’s financial situation. They needed to know.
“You may hate me now,” Christie said he told the group, “but 10 years from now, after I’ve made the changes that need to be made and you’re collecting your pensions, you’ll be looking for my address on the Internet to send me a thank-you note.”
The lesson of the story seemed clear at CPAC, when Christie faced Republicans and conservatives who have won the popular vote in just one of the last six presidential elections; who were roundly defeated in 2012 amid economic conditions that likely would have assured victory at any other time; and who are on the losing end of demographic trends that could prove disastrous for the party in coming decades.
Perhaps more than anything, Republicans desperately need ideas to reconnect with middle-class voters who have abandoned the GOP in droves.
So did the famously outspoken Christie tell the gathered Republicans and conservatives any hard truths they didn’t want to hear? Did he say they might hate him now but that in 10 years they’ll be sending him thank-you notes? Not at all.
The moral of the New Jersey story for Republicans, Christie said, is not that the GOP needs to face any difficult realities, but that they have a messaging problem. “We’ve got to start talking about what we’re for, and not what we’re against,” Christie said. “And the reason we have to start talking about what we’re for and not continuing to rail against what we’re against is because of one simple reason: Our ideas are better than their ideas, and that is what we have to stand up for.”
He’s most likely running for president and, fighting scandal at home, doesn’t need to alienate some of his party’s most loyal voters.
But there are a lot of Republicans who believe the GOP continues to need a serious talking-to and that Christie could be the man to do it. If he is, he didn’t show it at CPAC.
• Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.