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The tough truths about Chris Christie's New Jersey

By Errol Louis, Special to CNN
August 30, 2012 -- Updated 0946 GMT (1746 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chris Christie built his keynote address to RNC on theme of telling tough truths to America
  • Errol Louis says the New Jersey governor has to face the tough truths about his own state
  • New Jersey's unemployment rate is high, and there are questions about finances, he says
  • Louis: Christie's speech went over well, but he didn't mention Romney until late in his talk

Editor's note: Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York City all-news channel.

(CNN) -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie built his keynote address to the Republican National Convention on the theme of telling tough truths to the nation. "We have become paralyzed by our desire to be loved," announced Christie, showing off the gruff, no-nonsense style that catapulted him into the governor's mansion.

It's only fair to mention some tough truths about his speech, his tenure as governor and the state of the Republican campaign for president.

The most striking truth (as Democrats pointed out even before the address) is that New Jersey under Christie has suffered from a severely troubled economy and soaring costs of government: the very things that Republicans like Christie blame on Democrats.

Errol Louis
Errol Louis

As of July, New Jersey's unemployment rate stands at 9.8%: higher than the national average, fourth worst among the 50 states and the highest level in 35 years. The rate is higher than on the day Christie took office in 2010 and nearly a full percentage point higher than earlier this year, when Christie's State of the State address exultantly and repeatedly claimed that a "New Jersey Comeback" was under way.

And despite Christie's boasts about trimming the cost of government in the Garden State -- the keynote speech repeated his frequent claim of balancing three state budgets -- some fiscal watchdogs attribute the budgets to creative accounting, not true cost containment.

"A hard truth Christie absolutely will not tell is that every one of his budgets has been unbalanced by more than $2.5 billion," notes Bloomberg news blogger Josh Barro, citing Christie's bad habit -- started by previous governors -- of skimping on payments into the state's pension fund.

This year, for example, Christie paid just over $1 billion into the fund, a record amount but far less than the $3.74 billion that actuaries said was needed, according to Barro. Those unpaid billions are, in effect, a loan that will have to be repaid by taxpayers someday.

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No wonder Christie omitted "New Jersey Comeback" from his keynote address.

Put aside the ugly economics, and Christie's speech was unusually good. He read well from the teleprompter, even though he normally speaks without a prepared text. And he was persuasive, showing off the skills of his old job as a federal prosecutor.

Most important, from a political perspective, Christie had a smooth launch onto the national stage, talking more about Chris Christie -- much more -- than about the man of the hour, candidate Mitt Romney. In the seven-page text of the address sent to reporters, Romney's name doesn't appear until near the bottom of page five.

That's no surprise: Keynote addresses at the national conventions often serve as the launching pad for politicians preparing their own bids for president, and Christie has not shied away from talk that he might be a candidate in 2016 or later.

But even the most successful convention-speech-as-launch-pad of recent times -- the keynote delivered at the 2004 Democratic convention by a then-little-known Illinois state senator named Barack Obama -- lavishly praised Sen. John Kerry, the party's nominee that year. Though Obama called Kerry's name 13 times in that speech, Christie mentioned Romney only seven times.

Clearly, Christie's political star is rising. But he may also need to refine his "tough truths" mantra. The underlying message -- a promise to shrink government and reduce programs like Medicare -- is risky business in an election year.

Voters, like supermarket shoppers, want as much as they can get for as little as they can get away with paying. Our nation's airwaves and billboards are chock full of companies advertising two-for-one sales and buy-one-get-one-free specials for a reason: it works.

By contrast, you rarely see stores advertise the hard truth that the product isn't as good as they thought, the supplies are limited and the cost is going up.

If the tough-talk message helps Romney win the White House in November, Christie is assured a bright future on the national stage. But if he hopes to repeat any version of Obama's astounding leap from keynote to candidate, he'll have to get New Jersey's fiscal house in order pronto.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Errol Louis.

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