As congressional Republicans mull whether to address the government’s long-term fiscal problems — House Republican leaders are being pushed by the 87 freshmen to do so, while some Senate Republicans are seeking some bipartisan accords with Democratic colleagues — two Republican governors barreled into Washington with the message that the lawmakers better get moving. And that congressional Republicans might do just fine politically if they do.
The two Republican governors are Mitch Daniels of Indiana, who spoke to a Conservative Political Action Committee dinner Feb. 11, and Chris Christie of New Jersey, who spoke at American Enterprise Institute (where I am a resident fellow) on Feb. 16.
In style, they’re a contrast. Daniels is slight, balding and spoke quietly from a carefully prepared text. Christie is large and spoke bombastically without notes. But in substance, they were much the same.
They were both mightily concerned with what Daniels called “the red menace” — “the debts our nation has amassed for itself over decades of indulgence.” He warned that “federal spending commitments now in place will bring about the leviathan state” and “the slippage of the United States into a gray parity with the other nations of this earth.”
The response, he said, must be “the creation of new Social Security and Medicare compacts” that “reserve their funds for those most in need of them.” And “our morbidly obese federal government needs not just behavior modification but bariatric surgery.”
Daniels also called for changes in taxes, regulation and energy policy, and he roiled some conservatives by saying that defense shouldn’t get a free pass. He roiled others by ignoring the cultural issues on which he suggested last June we should have a “truce.”
But his central message was that Republicans must address entitlements — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. Which Barack Obama conspicuously failed to do in the budget plan he released a few days after Daniels’ speech.
Christie was less elegant and even more blunt than his Hoosier colleague. Drawing on his struggles with New Jersey’s public employee unions over pensions and benefits, he turned to national issues.
“My children’s future and your children’s future are more important than political strategy,” he began. “You’re going to have to raise the retirement age for Social Security. Whoa, I just said it, and I’m still standing here. I did not vaporize.
“We have to reform Medicare because it costs too much and it is going to bankrupt us. Once again, lightning did not come through the windows and strike me dead. And we have to fix Medicaid because it’s not only bankrupting the federal government, it’s bankrupting every state government.”
Obama, he said, was offering “the candy of American politics” — high-speed rail, plug-in cars — and congressional Republicans so far haven’t offered much more. If those he campaigned for don’t, he said, “the next time they’ll see me in their district is with my arm around their primary opponent.”
Washington insiders and old-timers tend to think Republicans would be foolish to heed Daniels’ and Christie’s advice. Talking about entitlements is supposed to be the third rail of American politics.
“I don’t think it’s fatal,” Christie said. “You just have to have the spine to take the lead,” and if you ask for shared sacrifice and don’t let people game the system, voters will respond.
Daniels and Christie both said that in traveling around their states they get the sense that voters support their major policy changes and are ready for more. The political numbers tend to back them up.
Daniels was elected to a second term in 2008 by a 58 percent to 40 percent margin, even as Barack Obama was carrying the state. In 2010, Republicans transformed the Indiana House from 52-48 Democratic to 60-40 Republican, and their margin in the state Senate is 37-13.
In the popular vote for U.S. House of Representatives, a good proxy for national partisan sentiment, Republicans in Indiana led 56 percent to 39 percent in 2010, up 10 points from 2008.
New Jersey’s House popular vote was 51 percent to 47 percent Republican in 2010, the best Republican performance there since 1994. It’s a bit lower than Christie’s current job approval of 54 percent and a bit higher than the 49 percent plurality he won in the 2009 election.
Daniels and Christie have been in the trenches, facing opposition legislatures, addressing fundamental issues and getting results voters like. Are congressional Republicans listening?