TIME Foreign Policy

The Republicans’ Iraq Trap

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks during an event at the Metropolitan University in San Juan, Puerto Rico on April 28, 2015.
Ricardo Arduengo—AP Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks during an event at the Metropolitan University in San Juan, Puerto Rico on April 28, 2015.

Jeb Bush still doesn’t know how to talk about Iraq.

The all-but-certain Republican presidential candidate’s strategy for handling his trickiest political inheritance has swung wildly in recent days, earning criticism from both sides of the aisle.

On Saturday the former Florida governor appeared to say he would have supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq even if he knew weapons of mass destruction weren’t present. By Tuesday, Bush was backpedaling, claiming he “misheard” the question. And by Wednesday he was punting, arguing against answering “hypothetical” questions about a war that claimed 4,491 U.S. lives.

No candidate this year is haunted by that conflict like Bush, who must weigh political and familial considerations. But he’s not alone in his struggles. In a campaign dominated so far by foreign policy themes, GOP presidential hopefuls are increasingly torn between the need to project toughness and the need to acknowledge what many voters see as the defining error of the last Republican commander-in-chief.

It’s a balancing act driven by the demands of the electorate. Years of surveys show the American public’s rejection of a war launched on faulty intelligence: a 2014 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, for example, found 71% of voters thought the war “wasn’t worth it,” compared to just 22% who thought it was. At the same time, the tumult rippling across the Middle East—from the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) to the unrest in war-torn nations like Libya, Syria and Yemen—has rejuvenated the nation’s hawkish impulses. A succession of polls this year suggest most Americans support sending ground troops to fight ISIS.

As a result, GOP candidates have embraced anew a muscular foreign policy that had atrophied for much of the Obama presidency. Promises to calm the chaos of the Middle East have dominated early candidate cattle calls, while tough talk on Iran has taken the place of Obamacare as a stump speech fixture. Even Sen. Rand Paul, who advocates a restrained foreign policy as part of the party’s more isolationist wing, introduced an amendment to significantly boost the defense budget. After announcing his presidential bid in April, the Kentuckian posed in front of a retired aircraft carrier in the port of Charleston to repeat his call. On a recent trip to South Carolina, Sen. Marco Rubio invoked Liam Neeson’s avenging promise from the movie Taken: “We will look for you, we will find you, and we will kill you.”

The bellicosity is one element of a broader strategy that includes also blaming President Obama for the mess in the Middle East and tethering Bush to his older brother. “If we knew then what we know now and I were the president of the United States, I wouldn’t have gone to war,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told CNN. Paul told the Associated Press that Bush’s comments represent “a real problem if he can’t articulate what he would have done differently.”

“Knowing what we know now, of course we wouldn’t go into Iraq,” Sen. Ted Cruz told The Hill.

Rubio went even further in an interview Wednesday at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Not only would I have not been in favor of it, President Bush would not have been in favor of it. He said so,” he said.

Turning Iraq into a centerpiece of the campaign is fraught with risk for Republicans, who have wrestled with the demons of a misbegotten war for a decade now. In 2004, the GOP made support for the conflict into a proxy for patriotism and rode the decision to victory in the presidential election. But by 2006, Democrats regained control of Congress amid the persistent casualties and growing sectarian violence sweeping Iraq.

Two years later, Obama’s early opposition to the war helped vault him past Hillary Clinton in their epic primary contest. He then used Sen. John McCain’s outspokenness for the war against him, mocking McCain’s suggestion that there might be an American presence in Iraq for 100 years. In 2012 Obama won re-election while highlighting his commitment to end the war.

But as the stability of Iraq crumbled in the wake of Obama’s troop withdrawal, Republicans sensed they could regain the upper hand. GOP candidates have criticized Obama for not leaving a larger security force in place to support the Iraqi government. Party strategists believe the path to the presidency hinges in part on an ability to disavow George W. Bush’s mistakes while blaming Obama for making the mess much worse.

Recognizing it won’t be easy, some of the party’s presidential contenders are treading lightly. In a speech laying out his foreign policy vision Wednesday, Rubio only briefly alluded to Iraq, implying that Obama’s troop drawdown was too swift and invoking “Afghans worried that America will leave them like we left Iraq.”

The delicate balancing act is sharply different from the strategy employed by the likely Democratic nominee. After years of standing by her vote to authorize the war, Clinton wrote in her 2014 memoir that she “got it wrong. Plain and simple.”

It was a reflection of how the politics of the issue had shifted—and may be shifting still.

TIME 2016 Election

Chris Christie Racked Up $300k of Food and Alcohol on Expense Account

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Olivier Douliery—Getty Images New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

Over his five years as governor

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie spent $300,000 of a government state allowance over five years in office to buy food, alcoholic drinks and desserts, according to a new analysis of state records.

In addition to his $175,000 salary, Christie receives $95,000 a year for purposes vaguely defined in the state budget for official purposes like state receptions, operating an official residence, or other expenses.

And numbers published by local website New Jersey Watchdog show Christie, a Republican presidential hopeful, took full advantage of the stipend over his five years as governor. He spent $76,373 during 53 shopping runs at Wegmans Food Markets, and $11,971 in purchases at ShopRite supermarkets during 51 visits, in addition to another $6,536 in seven visits to ShopRite’s liquor stores. The site is published by the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.

All the food purchases were for official purposes, an aide in Christie’s office said, including receptions and general upkeep at the governor’s mansion.

During the 2010 and 2011 NFL football seasons, Christie also spent a total of $82,594 at the MetLife Stadium, where the New York’s Giants and Jets play their home games. The New Jersey Republican State Committee later reimbursed the money Christie spent at MetLife to the state.

Gov. Christie’s office said the money was used for official political functions to host dignitaries and legislators.

“Whenever the Governor hosts an event in his official capacity, the discretionary account is available to pay for those costs associated with official reception and hosting and related incidental expenses,” said Christie’s press secretary Kevin Roberts in a statement.

“Nonetheless in early 2012, the Governor made the decision that costs associated with hosting at the sporting venues were better paid with non-state funds, and those expenses incurred during 2010 and 2011 were reimbursed by the NJGOP.”

Christie every year returns leftover funds from the $95,000 allowance to the state. The amount Christie returned annually to the state increased from $2,716 in 2010 to $30,377 last year.

Read next: Watch SNL Lampoon GOP Presidential Candidates

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TIME Chris Christie

Christie’s Problem: Bridgegate May Never Go Away

Chris Christie Addresses VA Consumer Electronics Association
Olivier Douliery—Getty Images New Jersey Governor Chris Christie addresses VA Consumer Electronics Association during a Leadership Series discussion at the Ritz-Carlton in McLean, Va, on May 1, 2015.

A federal prosecutor refused to say whether the New Jersey governor was involved, but his real problem is voters

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie spent Friday morning at a roundtable with technology executives in a suburban Washington Ritz-Carlton in the latest stop on his pre-presidential campaign tour. But 200 miles away in Virginia, those aspirations were being dealt their latest blow, as a former ally turned state’s evidence, implicating two top aides in a conspiracy to close approach lanes to the George Washington Bridge.

The long-stewing scandal began in 2013, when the bridge lanes were closed, but it did not end at Friday’s press conference with U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman. Instead, the federal prosecutor refused to address more than a dozen questions about Christie’s knowledge of or involvement in the lane-closing scheme and said he would never declare Christie cleared of wrongdoing.

Even more problematic, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly, one of the two aides indicted, suggested that others in Christie’s office knew of the scheme. “For the indictment to suggest that I was the only person in the governor’s office who knew about the bridge issue is ludicrous,” she said in a press conference Friday afternoon. And Alan Zegas, the attorney for admitted Bridgegate conspirator David Wildstein, repeated the claim that “evidence exists” to prove that Christie was aware of the bridge closures as they occurred.

“Based on the information that is currently available to us, we’re not going to charge anybody else in this scheme,” Fishman told reporters, emphasizing ‘this.’ At least one other investigation has been launched stemming from the bridge investigation. “I am not going to comment whether anybody is going to be further investigated in this or any other matter,” he added. “Ever.”

Christie and his aides maintain that Friday’s proceedings changed nothing about his long-held position that he knew nothing of the plot.

“Today’s charges make clear that what I’ve said from day one is true, I had no knowledge or involvement in the planning or execution of this act,” Christie said in a statement. “The moment I first learned of this unacceptable behavior I took action, firing staff believed to be accountable, calling for an outside investigation and agreeing to fully cooperate with all appropriate investigations, which I have done. Now 15 months later it is time to let the justice system do its job.”

But questions remain about Christie’s handling of the situation — and it may not be possible to answer them to the satisfaction of voters. How could Christie, whose national political action committee is called “Leadership Matters for America,” be blind to the actions of some of his closest aides? And how, when faced with complaints and questions from constituents, elected leaders, and the media, did he so easily shrug them off without investigating the situation?

Christie has long denied any knowledge of the lane closures at the time, but he is now faced with the impossible task of proving a negative. The best his team has been able to muster is that there is no evidence to prove his knowledge.

Christie and Wildstein met briefly on Sept. 11, 2013 — the third day the scheme was in operation — at a memorial event for the 2001 attacks. According to an investigation conducted by the lawfirm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher on behalf of Christie’s office, former Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak recalled a conversation with Wildstein in which he said he spoke to the governor about the lane closures at that time. But no corroborating evidence has surfaced to that effect, and Christie has said he has no recollection of the exchange.

Wildstein, a senior Port Authority of New York and New Jersey employee, admitted to being a part of the conspiracy to close the lanes on the first day of school, allegedly in retaliation for Democratic Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich’s refusal to endorse Christie’s re-election. A nine-count indictment against Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority, who are alleged to have helped carry out the payback scheme, was unsealed after the plea.

After a state legislative investigation unearthed damning text messages and emails between Wildstein and Kelly, including the infamous “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Christie fired Kelly.

“David Wildstein’s guilty plea and role in the traffic problems in Fort Lee have everything to do with Chris Christie despite his statements to the contrary,” said Democratic National Committee spokesperson Kaylie Hanson. “We continue to learn how closely connected the two men were before, during and after the George Washington Bridge lane closures, yet there are still so many questions that Chris Christie has left unanswered.”

The bridge scandal has taken an extraordinary toll on Christie’s presidential plans. In 2011, Republican operatives and financiers begged him to challenge Mitt Romney, promising he’d have the backing of their pocketbooks and donor networks. Now, many of the same have abandoned his likely candidacy for the likes of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. His poll numbers have collapsed at home, and nationally he is viewed more negatively than positively.

Yet by all accounts, Christie is proceeding with his delayed presidential plans. He’s continuing on an aggressive fundraising blitz for his political action committee, and next week will hold his third town hall in New Hampshire, the state that is at the center of his primary plan.

On his visit to the state last month, Christie earned a ribbing from New Hampshire voters about the bridge, proving it may never stop dogging him on the trail.

TIME Bizarre

Kirstie Alley Responds to ‘Christie Ally’ Bridge Scandal Confusion

The actress joked that she takes full responsibility

Friday in “No, The Nation’s Schools Are Doing Fine, Why Do You Ask?,” actress Kirstie Alley was trending on Twitter because people were misreading news headlines referring to a “Christie ally,” as in, an ally of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

And while the headline “Christie Ally Expected to Plead Guilty in George Washington Bridge Lane-Closing Case” could conceivably be misinterpreted by people speed-reading through their various news feeds, that’s no reason to blame Alley.

The actress herself seems to be taking her newfound Twitter popularity in stride – and might not be as blameless as you might think.

“I take full responsibility!” the actress tells PEOPLE. “You see, I bought a new Aston Martin and wanted the whole freeway to myself to test drive and … oops.”

This article originally appeared on People.

TIME Chris Christie

Christie Ally Pleads Guilty in Bridge Scandal, 2 Aides Indicted

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie addresses VA Consumer Electronics Association during a Leadership Series discussion at the Ritz-Carlton on May 1, 2015 in McLean, Virginia.
Olivier Douliery—Getty Images New Jersey Governor Chris Christie addresses VA Consumer Electronics Association during a Leadership Series discussion at the Ritz-Carlt`on on May 1, 2015 in McLean, Virginia.

An ally of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie responsible for closing approach lanes to the George Washington Bridge before his 2013 reelection pleaded guilty Friday, with indictments unveiled against a pair of former top Christie aides.

David Wildstein, the former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey official who supervised the lane closures, entered a guilty plea at the Newark, N.J., federal courthouse on a pair of conspiracy charges after an 18-month investigation. Nine-count indictments against Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority, were unsealed after the plea.

Wildstein, who is cooperating with prosecutors, was charged with conspiracy to knowingly misapplying property that receives federal funds and conspiracy to violate civil rights. The lane closures were allegedly in retribution for Democratic Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich’s refusal to endorse Christie’s reelection bid. Kelly and Baroni were charged with similar conspiracy charges, as well as multiple counts of wire fraud as part of the scheme.

Christie has denied knowledge of the lane closures, and for months afterward mocked the notion that the lanes closures were anything but a traffic study. But a legislative investigation revealed emails and text messages from Wildstein and Kelly—then one of Christie’s top aides—about the lane closures, including the now infamous note from Kelly, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

The scandal sent Christie’s presidential ambitions into a tailspin that he is only just emerging from. Christie began a series of town halls in New Hampshire just weeks ago in an attempt to revitalize his prospects. The indictments threaten to set his hopes back yet again.

Wildstein, David Information by Zeke Miller

TIME Chris Christie

Chris Christie’s Straight Talk Plan Hits Its Tax Speed Bump

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie holds a town hall meeting at Londonderry Lion's Club on April 15, 2015 in Londonderry, N.H.
Darren McCollester—Getty Images New Jersey Governor Chris Christie holds a town hall meeting at Londonderry Lion's Club on April 15, 2015 in Londonderry, N.H.

Gov. Chris Christie’s plan to use straight talk to fight his way back into the 2016 Republican presidential primary has already hit its first snag.

On Tuesday, the New Jersey Republican proposed reducing or cutting Social Security benefits for future retirees who continue to earn money, an idea known as means testing. Under his plan, Social Security checks would be reduced for those who earn more than $80,000 a year in retirement and ended for those who earn more than $200,000.

Christie has framed the proposal as a much-needed burst of truth-telling on America’s entitlement programs. But it has already drawn criticism from some influential conservatives as a roundabout tax on upper-income Americans.

“Is it not, a straight-out wealth tax,” influential conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt asked Christie Tuesday. “It’s a tax on people who accumulated wealth during their life, or inherited it, they might not have earned it, they might have inherited it, but it’s a straight out wealth tax, right?”

Christie defended the plan to Hewitt, saying, “What it is, is a recognition of the fact that this program needs to provide first and foremost for those people who need retirement security the most.”

Taxes are a tricky issue for Christie owing to his record as governor. Despite a no-new-taxes pledge as a candidate in 2010, he cut property tax breaks for many New Jersey residents shortly after taking office to close a budget shortfall—effectively increasing their rates. He also raised fees for many state services.

Asked by a reporter Wednesday whether he would be open to raising any revenues at the federal level, Christie said he would listen to all proposals.

“Listen, I think we need to change the tax system significantly,” he said, adding, “As I’ve said in New Jersey, I always consider everything. Everything is on the table for conversation. But I don’t think that the problem right now in America is that we are under-taxed.”

But even his openness to considering revenue increases puts him outside GOP orthodoxy, where signing the Americans for Tax Reform “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” pledge has become the norm. Christie has not signed the pledge, according to a database maintained by the group. (He’s not alone. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has also said he would not sign the pledge, drawing criticism from some conservatives who are still unhappy about his father’s record as president.)

It also breaks with recent history. In 2012, all of the Republican presidential candidates unanimously pledged to veto any deficit reduction plan that raised new revenues, even if 10 times the amount taken in was cut from the budget.

Christie has not exactly endorsed the idea of raising taxes, but for some conservatives, anything but all-out opposition signals squishiness on the issue. Still, he framed his thinking on the issue as more straight talk.

“I am a guy who is always willing to listen to anybody, but let me be clear, I don’t believe the problem we have in America right now is that we’re under-taxed,” Christie repeated. “And so the fact of the matter is when you’re a leader, you have to be willing to listen to everybody’s ideas, but my ideas, I’ve laid out very specifically how to fix the programs, which doesn’t include raising taxes. That’s not the way to fix this problem.”

Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist defended Christie Wednesday in an email to TIME, praising him as a acolyte of President Reagan.

“To date Christie has opposed and vetoed all tax hikes in New Jersey,” Norquist said. “Reducing a benefit is not a tax hike. Shame on any conservative who confuses spending cuts and tax increases. For a Northeast Republican he is very Reaganite.”

TIME Chris Christie

Chris Christie Pins Hopes for Revival on Straight Talk

Chris Christie
Jim Cole—AP New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J. takes a questions during a town hall meeting with area residents in Londonderry, N.H., April 15, 2015.

For Chris Christie, it was a do-over of sorts. Laura Condon, a New Hampshire anti-vaccination activist, took the microphone at the Londonderry Lions Club to ask the New Jersey Governor if he would stand with conscientious objectors who want to opt out of vaccinating their children.

“Yeah, no, you can’t count on me for that,” the shirt-sleeved New Jersey governor said without missing a beat, surrounded by applauding voters in the first in the nation primary.

It was a much different response than he gave when a reporter asked Christie during a February trip to England. Then, his off-the-cuff remarks about balancing parent choice and public health led to criticism and a quick walk-back by his staff back in New Jersey.

But if Christie’s presidential ambitions can be hurt by his unscripted moments, he also hopes they’ll help revive his campaign. Dogged by lower approval ratings at home and overshadowed by his Republican rivals, Christie is pinning his still-unannounced campaign’s prospects on straight talk.

Wednesday’s event was the kick-off of his “Tell It Like It Is” tour, designed to put Christie into the fray in town halls, restaurants and rec centers across the Granite State.

Christie’s presidential ambitions depend on his success in interactions like this, modeled after former Sen. John McCain’s two successful primary campaigns in the state. He and his political aides are betting it all on his ability to break through in New Hampshire, as he seeks to resurrect his presidential ambitions following the fallout of the politically motivated closures of approach lanes to the George Washington Bridge in 2013 and a tough fiscal climate in New Jersey.

The town hall is Christie’s preferred format at home, where on Thursday he will hold his 135th since taking office, though they often feature high-octane interactions with those that disagree with him. Christie brought his swagger to New Hampshire, but he didn’t need it. He faced a capacity crowd of friendly faces, even dispensing his ritualistic recitation of his four rules for town halls, including the warning that “if you give it, you are getting it right back.”

And it worked on the vaccination critic.

“He was pretty harsh with his answer, but I don’t think he was disrespectful toward me,” Condon told reporters after the 90-minute event, crediting him with being “strong in his opinions.”

The interaction highlighted Christie’s core strength as a politician and all-but-certain presidential candidate—his confidence interacting with voters one-on-one, on topics of their choosing is second-to-none in the Republican field. Christie and his political aides are betting it all on his ability to break through in New Hampshire, as he seeks to resurrect his presidential ambitions following the fallout of the politically motivated closures of approach lanes to the George Washington Bridge in 2013 and a tough fiscal climate in New Jersey.

On Wednesday, he faced questions on his new plan to reform Social Security and Medicare, the emerging nuclear agreement with Iran, and the rising cost of college tuition.

“We need to start having a national conversation with out colleges and universities about cost-control,” he said using his own family as an example. His eldest son and daughter are students at Princeton and Notre Dame respectively, and Christie said his tuition bills next year would top $120,000, drawing gasps from the audience. He suggested that future federal grant money be tied to schools’ commitment to keep education affordable.

He delivered a detailed response to a question about campaign finance reform, saying he believes that the best solution to repairing a broken system to allow unlimited donations with immediate disclosure.

“There shouldn’t be any restrictions on who can give how much to whom,” he said, “But there needs to be 24 hour absolute giving out of that information on the internet of who you are taking that money from.”

And he earned a round of chuckles mocking former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose campaign and its affiliates are looking to raise as much as $2.5 billion to send her to the White House. “But she wants to then get the corrupting money out of politics…,” he said, referencing her promise to do the same in Iowa on Tuesday.

On his entitlement plan, which would raise the eligibility age for Medicare and Social Security and means-test the programs, Christie sought to reassure a room heavy with seniors that his plan wouldn’t affect current or near-term beneficiaries. He added that some advisors tried to convince him not to give speech about entitlements yesterday, owing to Social Security’s mythical status as a ‘third rail’ of American politics. “I have to say this stuff because it’s true,” Christie said, earning another round of applause.

On immigration reform, Christie said he would prioritize border enforcement, but that building a border wall “sends a bad signal about who we are as a people.” He added that the debate over a path to citizenship for the 11 million people living in the U.S. without legal status is only prolonging immigration reform efforts.

“So let’s stop having this argument about a path to citizenship, because most of the folks that I’ve met want to work,” he said, not vote.

Former New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Wayne MacDonald said the performance reminded him of McCain’s 2000 and 2008 “straight talk,” which propelled him to victory in both primaries.

“New Hampshire is about retail politics—it’s about events like this one,” MacDonald, who has yet to endorse a candidate, told TIME. “The candidates who appreciate that process are the ones that do well and are the most successful, and certainly Gov. Christie demonstrated that today.”

Before the town hall, Christie visited Chez Vachon, the Manchester diner that has hosted dozens of presidential contenders over the years, where he was playfully ribbed by a table of seniors about the bridge closing and the ending of the HBO drama The Sopranos.

On Friday, Christie will be back in New Hampshire for another town hall at an Exeter sportsbar. “We’re doing a town hall meeting in a bar, because a guy from Jersey should do a town hall meeting in a bar,” Christie joked. The crowd ate it up.

TIME Chris Christie

Chris Christie Takes a Swing at Jeb Bush

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie holds a town hall meeting at Londonderry Lion's Club on April 15, 2015 in Londonderry, N.H.
Darren McCollester—Getty Images New Jersey Governor Chris Christie holds a town hall meeting at Londonderry Lion's Club on April 15, 2015 in Londonderry, N.H.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie criticized former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for not providing more specifics on his foreign policy views, his most direct critique yet of his better-funded Republican rival.

In an interview with conservative radio host Laura Ingraham Wednesday, Christie was asked whether he agrees with the Bush family record and its approach to foreign and domestic policy. “I’ll wait to see what Jeb is going to have to say about these things,” Christie said. “He’s certainly got a father and brother who have a record. And I don’t know what Jeb Bush is going to say about foreign policy.”

“The one speech that he’s given so far I thought was rather general and didn’t really give you any great insight into what he wanted to do,” he continued. “So let’s see what he’s got to say for himself. In the end, his record, and more importantly his vision for what the future is going to be is what is going to determine how credible of a candidate he is.”

Bush leads Christie both in fundraising and in national and early state polling.

Christie, who held his first town hall in New Hampshire Wednesday, noted that on Tuesday he delivered a policy speech on entitlement reform, the first of four addresses in the coming months. His foreign policy speech has yet to be scheduled.

“So if I decide to run for president, you can conclude that it’s because I believe that I’d be a better candidate for our party and a better president than Jeb Bush or anybody else who decided to run,” Christie added.

TIME Chris Christie

How Obamacare Makes Chris Christie’s Medicare Plan Possible

Chris Christie
Mel Evans—AP In this April 8, 2015 file photo, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addresses a gathering as he announces a $202 million flood control project for Union Beach, N.J.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would like to raise the age to qualify for Medicare, part of a bold plan to reform entitlements that he released Tuesday morning.

The proposal was greeted with cheers from many conservatives, but there’s a twist. The main reason that slowly raising the retirement age from 65 to 69 is politically feasible is a law that many conservatives hate: Obamacare.

That’s because working-class Americans who lose health insurance at work when they retire at, say, age 65, would instead be eligible to receive modest subsidies on insurance exchanges set up by the Affordable Care Act. (Very low-income seniors could also sign up for Medicaid in some states or receive larger subsidies for coverage on the exchanges.)

“Obamacare soaks up the people who would otherwise be displaced by raising the eligibility age for Medicare,” said Avik Roy, a prominent Republican expert in health care policy who has argued that conservatives should use Obamacare to promote their own policies rather than repeal the law. “In the old days, if you raised the eligibility age for Medicare, then someone who is low-income at 65, but not eligible for Medicaid, are stuck in this gap, so what do you do?”

“But with [Obamacare], that safety net is there, so it’s much easier to raise the Medicare age,” added Roy.

But if retirees who, at 65, would have qualified for Medicare, which is relatively cheap, shift en masse to private insurance, which is relatively expensive, does Christie’s plan of raising the eligibility age actually save any money?

That answer has been hotly debated for years, since the cost of providing health care to 65-69 year-olds wouldn’t just disappear, it would shift to another part of the federal budget.

Some argue that it would save money, since the subsidies under the Affordable Care Act get smaller as seniors’ income rises, while Medicare serves seniors of all incomes the same.

“In general, raising the eligibility age for Medicare will save money for the federal government because seniors with relatively higher incomes wouldn’t be eligible for any other federal subsidies,” said Michael E. Chernew, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School. “That’s the simple analysis.”

A 2011 Kaiser Family Foundation study estimated that raising the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67 would save the federal government as much as $5.7 billion in the short term. But it could also cost 65- and 66-year-olds $3.7 billion in out-of-pocket expenses, and employers $4.5 billion in retiree health-care costs. (And that’s to say nothing of how the policy could negatively affect the cost of Medicaid and Medicare Part B premiums, according to the Kaiser study.)

Chernew added that raising the Medicare age comes with other, more complex ramifications, including the type and quality of care available, and whether such a policy would encourage more older Americans to remain in the workforce for longer. Another part of Christie’s plan directly incentivizes Americans to keep working past the age of 65 by eliminating the payroll tax for workers 62 and older.

But the broader question is whether conservatives want to make use of the Affordable Care Act to make their own changes to the health care system or whether they want to repeal the law and start from scratch.

Roy, who has advocated for “transcending Obamacare,” argues that that Christie’s policy proposal is a smart political play. “He’s staking out ground as a credible, bipartisan entitlement reformer,” he said.

TIME Chris Christie

Chris Christie to Propose Changes to Social Security, Medicare

Chris Christie
Mel Evans—AP In this April 8, 2015 file photo, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addresses a gathering as he announces a $202 million flood control project for Union Beach, N.J.

He'd raise the retirement age and means-test benefits

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will unveil a proposal to change Social Security and Medicare Tuesday in a speech in New Hampshire, as he seeks to inject new life into his presidential ambitions.

The outspoken Republican’s political fortunes soured after last year’s controversy over the political closure of approach lanes to the George Washington Bridge and a tough fiscal picture at home. But Christie is hoping that by embracing the third rail of American politics with two hands he can bolster his credentials as a truth-teller.

“Washington is afraid to have an honest conversation about Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid with the people of our country,” Christie will say in a speech at New Hampshire’s St. Anselm College Institute of Politics. “I am not.”

Christie will propose raising the retirement age for Medicare to 67 and for Social Security to 69, arguing that entitlement programs must be fair for all Americans, including the next generation that is paying into the programs while questioning whether they will ever see benefits.

In a controversial move, Christie would means-test Social Security, reducing or cutting payments entirely for those who continue to earn income in retirement. He will argue that he wants to return the program being a social insurance program, where only those who need the outlays will receive them.

“Do we really believe that the wealthiest Americans need to take from younger, hard-working Americans to receive what, for most of them, is a modest monthly Social Security check,” Christie will say. “I propose a modest means test that only affects those with non-Social Security income of over $80,000 per year, and phases out Social Security payments entirely for those that have $200,000 a year of other income.”

To incentivize work as more Americans continue to hold jobs later into life, Christie would eliminate the payroll tax at 62.

Christie’s political identity stems from his willingness to take on powerful interests, such as his home state’s teachers unions, altering the calculus in favor of what for most other politicians would be an undeniably risky move. But Christie’s proposals stop short of radically altering either Medicaid or Social Security as some conservatives have proposed, staying away from the 2000s-era privatization debates.

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