Christie Discusses Policies in Newport Visit

Wednesday, July 29, 2015
Newport — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called for entitlement reform in a town hall forum Tuesday afternoon, outlining a platform that involved significant cuts to retiree benefits.

In his second major presidential campaign visit to the Upper Valley in recent months, Christie kicked off his appearance at Salt hill Pub with a rousing tirade, containing many applause lines, against President Obama’s foreign policy. But the room grew quieter — and sometimes more contentious — as he discussed his plan to preserve the solvency of Social Security and Medicare.

“It’s the third rail of American politics,” he said, nodding to the sensitivity of the subject for presidential hopefuls. “If you touch it, you die. So here’s what we’re going to do: We’re going to hug it. We’re not just going to touch it — we’re going to hug it.”

But some Granite Staters in attendance bristled at the policy suggestions the Republican presidential candidate made during the forum, which included increasing the Social Security retirement age by two years — a change he would make in monthly increments over the next 25 years — and limiting entitlement benefits for retirees receiving at least $200,000 in yearly investment returns.

“I’ve spent my life working six or seven days a week, going to work at 5 in the morning sawing lumber, and I’ve saved some money,” said Kevin Onnela, who owns a sawmill in Lempster. “If I make $200,000 a year, you want to take back what I put in?”

“In retirement income, yes,” Christie said. “If you have 4 to 5 million bucks in the bank — if you do, God bless you — I want to take it away.”

Christie said he had two choices: raise taxes now or cut benefits later.

The governor pointed to decisions by past Congresses and administrations, including prior borrowing from the entitlement funds, that he said already had set Social Security and Medicare on course for failure. He mentioned a 2015 Harvard-Dartmouth study that places Social Security’s date of insolvency roughly seven or eight years from now, sooner than the federal government’s prediction that the system will fail in 2034.

“This problem’s been coming for a long time,” Christie told Onnela, later adding, “You can be mad either way, but you have to fix the math.”

Afterward, Onnela said Christie had not won him over. He said he has run his sawmill for years, paying into government programs all the while, and said he resents that under Christie’s policy, others who paid far less — or nothing at all — would benefit while his dividends were cut.

“I’d rather give my money where I want to give it, rather than be told I’m going to give it to the junkie up the street,” he said, referring to the Electronic Benefits Transfer, the system state welfare programs use to distribute money, often for food.

On whether Christie ever had a chance at earning his vote, Onnela said, “No, no ... He calls himself a conservative — he’s not a conservative.”

Onnela said his “dream team” in the White House is Ben Carson, the famed neurosurgeon, as president, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker as vice president, and Trey Gowdy — the South Carolina congressman who heads the U.S. House select committee on the 2012 Benghazi attack — as attorney general.

Lev and Catee Hubbard, a New London couple who wore Christie stickers on their shirts, said they had been swayed by the governor’s arguments on entitlements.

“They’ve got to do something with them,” Catee Hubbard said, referring to Christie’s proposed increase of the retirement age. “It makes sense to do it like that — very slow.”

Both Onnela and the Hubbards were unsure whether the income-based limitations would apply to them.

Andrew Samwick — a Dartmouth College economics professor whose expertise includes pensions and taxation and who served as chief economist on the staff of the Council of Economic Advisers in 2003-04 during the George W. Bush administration — said Christie’s entitlement policies were both financially and politically viable.

Samwick said both the reduction in benefits and the increase in retirement age mirrored past governments’ policy choices.

The latter move especially would be helpful to the retirement system’s finances, he said, and delaying its implementation a few years would allow a politician to say those “at or near retirement” are not at risk.

“It is good that a candidate like Christie is raising this issue on the campaign trail,” Samwick said in an email Tuesday afternoon.

Lev Hubbard, a World War II veteran, said he liked Christie’s comparatively aggressive foreign policy stance and, generally, the New Jersey governor’s reputation for straightforwardness.

“I think he was very honest about talking about things people didn’t like. Whether it was marijuana or same-sex marriage, things like that, he says, ‘This is the way it is,’ ” Lev Hubbard said. “I like it: He tells it as it is.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

Clarification

Dartmouth College economics professor Andrew Samwick served as chief economist on the staff of the Council of Economic Advisers in 2003-04 during the George W. Bush administration. An earlier version of this story inexactly described his role.




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