In late February, New Jersey governor Chris Christie visited Washington to deliver a highly anticipated speech on entitlement reform at the American Enterprise Institute. The lecture was titled “It’s Time to Do the Big Things,” and it was full of the blunt, confrontational talk that has made the governor a political phenomenon. Christie argued that nothing was more important than coming to grips with the growing debt crisis created by so much mandatory spending.
“Leadership today in America has to be about doing the big things and being courageous,” he bellowed. Christie chastised Barack Obama for his refusal to lead on entitlement reform and mocked those in his own party who were scared of the political hits they might take for being bold.
Our new, bold Republicans that we just sent to the House of Representatives aren’t talking about it because they are waiting for [Obama] to talk about it. Let me suggest to you that my children’s future and your children’s future is more important than some political strategy. Let me suggest to you that what game is being played out here is irresponsible and it’s dangerous. We need to say these things and we need to say them out loud—when we say we’re cutting spending, when we say everything is on the table, when we say we mean entitlement programs, we should be specific.
The crisis was so urgent, he continued, that it would be irresponsible to put off a solution even for a few months. “I understand that this political strategy in Washington is about waiting out until 2012. That’s five years away from Medicare insolvency.” Too many politicians, Christie said, wanted to avoid the problem. “You can’t fix these problems if you don’t talk about them. You cannot fix these problems without talking about them.”
Last week, Christie traveled to New Hampshire to endorse Mitt Romney, a candidate who has spent little time talking about these problems. And to the surprise of even some of his supporters, Christie did not mention the urgency of entitlement reform in his brief remarks endorsing Romney, or in the 35-minute tele-townhall he did for Romney later that afternoon, or in an interview on the Today show with Romney the next morning.
Entitlement reform, which dominated both public and private discussions among national Republicans over the course of the spring and summer, has virtually disappeared as an issue in the Republican presidential campaign. The three Republicans who have been most outspoken about the need to reform entitlements all opted not to run. Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, and Christie each considered a White House bid in the belief that the depth and seriousness of the U.S. economic and debt crises required a bold and aggressive response.
To the extent Republican presidential candidates have talked about entitlements, the discussion has been unhelpful. Rick Perry deserves credit for his willingness to engage on the issue, but calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme without offering a plan to reform it is inadequate. Romney, seeing a political opening, took it, and has been attacking Perry in a manner dangerously close to the dema-goguery Democrats believe will save them in 2012. Herman Cain, for his part, has offered a full embrace of the Ryan plan but like his rivals spends precious little time pushing entitlement reform. Daniels, governor of Indiana, said earlier this month that the current field is “missing clarity, specificity, and boldness to match the dire situation we face as a country.”
As the likelihood of a Romney nomination grows, some congres-sional Republicans are concerned. All but four House Republicans and all but five GOP senators voted for the Ryan budget—a plan that Romney praised as courageous but did not endorse. Democrats have made clear that those votes will be a focal point of the 2012 election cycle. Can these congressional Republicans defend their votes if the eventual Republican nominee for president will not?
Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom insists that his candidate has engaged with entitlement reform: “He has addressed it in his book, No Apology, and also on the campaign trail. He has brought forward a specific reform to convert Medicaid to a block grant program administered by the states, and for Social Security he has discussed raising the eligibility age for younger workers and changing the way benefits are indexed to inflation for high-income retirees. On Medicare, he’s articulated principles of reform, and we expect to announce more detailed proposals as the campaign progresses.”
Work on Romney’s plan is being supervised by his policy director, Lanhee Chen. The campaign has reached out to experts on entitlements, but Romney officials would not specify a date for the release of his proposal. Still, Romney’s campaign website promises that “Mitt will propose the specific steps he will take as president to ensure the long-term solvency of Medicare and Social Security.”
In his book, Romney chastised the media for letting politicians get away with vague rhetoric on entitlements.
I admit to having been more than a little surprised that many of the serious challenges facing America today were not forcefully examined by the media during the 2008 primary and general election campaigns. It’s well understood by those who have studied the federal budget, for example, that our entitlement programs will eventually swamp us. But neither party’s candidates were pushed to explain what they would do about it. In one of our Republican primary debates, for example, we were asked, “Specifically, what would you do to fix Social Security?” Most responded by restating the problem—“Social Security is bankrupt”—rather than by addressing a solution; politicians have learned from experience that it is unwise to touch the “third rail of politics.” But why is that? Why is it that the media doesn’t hold accountable those who duck this critical issue? Why isn’t it instead that failure to address entitlement and Social Security reform is the “third rail?”
Good question. I suspect that journalists, at least with one candidate, won’t make the same mistake twice.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.