SAN DIEGO -- When at least four possible presidential contenders – Govs. Haley Barbour, Bobby Jindal, Tim Pawlenty and Mitch Daniels -- shared a stage at the Republican Governors Association conference Thursday morning, along with Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie, who do you think was the standout?
Yes, Barbour's every word is quotable, Daniels has sewn up the David Brooks primary
, and no one can say that Pawlenty doesn't present well. But if you read Politics Daily's Jill Lawrence
, you might not be surprised to learn that it was Christie who got the most applause and laughs from the crowd.
What new governors can't understand, he said, is that "I don't care if you had a Democrat or a Republican before you,'' you will still be up against the same "it's never been done that way'' mindset. He told governors-elect that their own political advisers will tell them, "Let's not kick anybody you shouldn't kick and you'll be fine; let's incrementalize, kick them a little and cuddle up to them at other times.'' Which is fine, he said, if you want voters to "fog over" when you speak, throw down the newspaper when they read about you, and vote against you the next time.
Speaking about his own fight against the teachers unions, he said he likes teachers, too, "but I can't stand their union.'' Freezing teacher salaries for a year and asking teachers to pay 1.5 percent of their salary for health benefits was characterized as such an historic assault on schools that even his own first-grader, Bridget, was hurt as a result. Really? Sure, he said, and told a story about her supposedly coming home with her first report card and complaining that OF COURSE her marks were poor. "I can't concentrate, I can't study,'' with a teacher whose pay has been frozen. "Dad, stop the madness!"
In answer to the huge laughter and applause from the crowd, he said, "You laugh, but that's the crap I have to listen to in New Jersey.''
Spend your political capital while you have it, he advised those just elected, because if you stow it in a drawer for some time when you need it, you'll open that drawer some day and find that is has dissipated.
Christie and Susana Martinez of New Mexico were chosen as at-large members of the RGA's leadership team headed by incoming chair Rick Perry. Outgoing chairman Haley Barbour will remain on the team in the newly created role of policy chairman. Jindal will serve as gala chairman and Nikki Haley as recruitment chairwoman.
As for advice new governors got from others on the stage? Barbour told them to "do what you said you were gonna do. Anybody that thinks there's one department in your state that can't save money doesn't know what the hell they're talking about."
Pawlenty said "every day there are threats to our freedom in the form of school board" and other governmental decisions. Taking one of several shots at the press, he said that when Republicans so much as mention the word freedom "some of our friends who are cynical in the media snicker at that.''
Daniels, who moderator Bill Bennett introduced as "the man on the motorcycle,''
(Daniels rides a Harley) was in both dress and posture the most relaxed guy on the stage. In a baggy blue sweater over a T-shirt, he leaned way back in his chair and told new governors, "You're going to have a field day, especially if you follow a Democrat'' because there will be so much fat to trim from state budgets. "Low-hanging fruit,'' he called it. "It's what our military friends call a target-rich environment.''
Interestingly, a main theme of today's discussion was that this is a moment when the American public is prepared and willing to make sacrifices; that's an argument that many of Obama's fellow Democrats thought he should have made more explicitly.
McDonnell said this is a unique moment "in American history when people are willing to put up with more cuts. People manage resources better if you give them less of it.''
Later in the day, at a panel discussion modestly called "Saving America,'' Newt Gingrich gave the only formal address of the conference, a 12-point plan delivered from a podium. In it, he said people receiving unemployment compensation should be required to go through a training course because "paying people to do nothing for 99 weeks is as wrong in unemployment compensation as it was in welfare.''
Another of his proposals is that every public school student be required to "reassert American exceptionalism" by studying the Declaration of Independence every year. "The time has come to reassert that we are Americans, and America is a learned civilization,'' he said, pronouncing learned
as a one- rather than two-syllable word.
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