Chris Christie's screw-the-seniors platform: I will slash Medicare and Social Security the best!

The forgotten NJ governor hopes to boost his flailing bid by going hard after social insurance

Published April 14, 2015 5:42PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)
(Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

Remember Chris Christie? Big fella from New Jersey, could've been president in 2012, won gubernatorial reelection in 2013, looked like a frontrunner for 2016. Then there was something about bridge lanes, people generally grew tired of his schtick, and now he's unpopular and nobody really cares.

Well, Christie cares. He still is likely running for president, despite falling off the grid over the last couple of months and looking more and more like the odd man out. His advisors will probably spin you something hilarious, like how the total evaporation of buzz behind his candidacy has been an intentional strategy. He could be all over the papers, if he wanted to, but he's been humbly working hard in New Jersey to reground himself, do some town halls, and put the final touches on his masterful White House strategy. The only reason that nobody, anywhere, has been talking about Chris Christie recently is because Chris Christie wants it that way. He is ten steps ahead of the lousy pundits and voters, always.

Christie will be in New Hampshire this week for a series of speeches, town halls, fundraisers, cocktail parties and other New Hampshire stuff. And in a big speech today, he's laid out the platform on which he'll be running: cutting Social Security and Medicare.

The specific proposals themselves aren't anything new. He will gradually raise the retirement ages on Social Security and Medicare by two years each, to 69 and 67, respectively. He would also enhance means-testing for each program. The disability insurance component of Social Security will also be on the chopping block, because it's very stylish in conservative circles nowadays to argue that most people who receive disability payments are just lazy bums who have plenty of years of hard work left in their backs.

Christie's plan seems to be to federalize his "tough love" brand -- the same brand that's grown tiresome and created all these problems for him. This will win him all sorts of plaudits from the very serious, responsible pundits who believe that effective, popular social insurance programs are the only thing restraining this economy from permanent 90% quarterly growth.

I can already see Joe Scarborough handing off his latte to Mika Brzezinski and doing backflips on the set of "Morning Joe" to celebrate Christie's "truth-telling on entitlements." Joe Scarborough, I see you in the near-future, celebrating Christie's "balanced approach" to cutting entitlements. He'll raise the retirement age, sure, but he'll also ask more of wealthier seniors! Well, I'm going to make a reasonable conjecture here, that when Christie's fiscal plan is fully rounded out it's also going to include such massive tax transfers to the top that the super-rich will be in a solid net-gain position in the end. And since sharp means-testing will crank up the welfarization of these programs, it will chip away at the broad-based political support they enjoy in the long term.

But sure, going directly after the big social insurance programs is never exactly a fun political proposition, even if it fits neatly in-character as it does with Christie. And though the GOP is nominally all about trimming back Big Government Spending, the average age of Republican primary voters is between 89 and 474 years old. Expect Christie to follow the Paul Ryan playbook and ensure that none of these changes would affect any current seniors (Republicans), they would only affect young people who, in accordance with natural laws governing time, will eventually be old (Democrats).

Having a notoriously loud candidate jumping into the fray screaming about cutting social insurance programs will set up an interesting dynamic within the Republican primary. Most Republican candidates, looking at the geriatric audiences that they'll be addressing, like to talk about the need to "rein in the debt," but aren't too eager to go into good-faith detail. They'd prefer to play to frighteningly common misperceptions about how most federal spending is devoted to foreign aid and blank-check welfare packages for African-Americans.

If Christie gets in their faces about Medicare and Social Security, they'll have uneasy choices of their own to make. Looking at the basic polling data, it would seem wiser to go on the offensive against Christie's calls for cutting Medicare and Social Security. But that earns you the enmity of prominent fiscal conservatives and wealthy Republican donors. In 2012, Newt Gingrich thought he had it made when he described Paul Ryan's entitlement-slashing proposals as "right-wing social engineering," but that lost him a lot of cred among influential conservatives who determined -- if they hadn't already -- that he was more an opportunist than the fundamentally serious intellectual that he presented himself as. It's doubtful that a campaign premised on cutting popular government programs can resurrect Christie from his lowly position and put him back on a path to the nomination, but it could make the campaign trickier for everyone else.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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