"People say lots of things about me, good and bad. But no one will ever say, 'I wonder what Chris Christie is thinking.'"
The New Jersey governor brought his reputation for honesty -- and his not-quite-yet-a-campaign for 2016 -- to Athens today, marking the unofficial opening to the state GOP convention. His speech before a few hundred Republicans, who arrived several hours before the official start to the convention and had to pay to enter the breakfast event, touched on themes we've heard before from him: his ability to win elections and govern conservatively in a deep-blue state, and his call for Americans to have a frank conversation about reforming entitlement spending.
Newer was the link he drew between entitlement reform and America's foreign policy. Christie suggested politicians and pundits underestimate the American people's willingness to make hard choices about both.
"I think all of you are not only ready for the truth" about hard choices, he said. "I think you're hungry for the truth."
Christie argued entitlements -- which, he said, now consume 71 percent of federal spending, compared to 26 percent under JFK -- prevent the federal government from making other choices, from cutting taxes to investing in infrastructure or defense. It was the latter that he emphasized in making the argument for maintaining peace through strength.
Holding firm positions, Christie said, "is not picking fights. It's avoiding them." He sharply criticized President Obama -- and, often, his former secretary of state and would-be successor, Hillary Clinton -- for a foreign policy that has left Mideast countries from Libya to Iraq "on fire" and which has left our allies not only threatened by the likes of ISIS but by Obama's "timidity."
"The only person this president is willing to stand up to, to talk tough to," Christie said, is the prime minister of Israel.
Christie's criticism of the Obama/Clinton approach to Russia was harsher still. "Seventy years of blood and treasure to keep Europe united and free" from the Nazis and then the Soviets, he said, was being squandered by the infamous "reset" with Moscow. He suggested NATO members such as Poland and the Baltic states may understandably be wondering if they are in fact "junior" members who wouldn't be protected in the event of an attack. " As in the Mideast, with Obama's bluster about "red lines," Christie said it goes back to the president's unwillingness to be forthright with our allies and enemies alike.
"Vladimir Putin needs to know what Americans will put up with from him and what they will not put up with," he said.
To those who question the cost of a robust foreign policy, he said Americans are now "bearing the burden" -- another apparent reference to JFK -- "of a chaotic world, out of control, without any sense of order, without any sense of security." And, tying a strong foreign policy back to a strong economy and fiscal situation, Christie said "a secure and safe economy in the United States will lead to a secure and safe world, in every corner of the globe."
All in all, it was a strong and well-received speech from a man who would start far behind other Republican presidential aspirants if opinion polls are correct. (His only allusion to running was a call for a conversation about the presidency that had "honesty and courage and goodness"; afterward, he said he would be letting everyone know his electoral intentions soon.)
The size and response of the crowd suggest there may be an opening for him to improve those numbers, at least in Georgia.