Earlier today Bloomberg View columnists Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru met online to chat about Chris Christie's continuing troubles, Robert Gates and the viability of Obamacare. Below is a lightly edited transcript.
Margaret: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie couldn't win the headlines yesterday. If he hadn't mentioned the traffic jam during his State of the State speech, that would have been the headline; the fact that he did led every paper. I wouldn't have been watching the speech but for the mess and I was impressed by what he's done. Voters love his efficiencies -- getting towns and counties to merge to save $3 million in one case, becoming a more agile bureaucracy. His approval numbers are down from the low 70s a year ago to about 55 percent now, which would be good for anyone else. His speech yesterday is the last forum he'll control for a while. The most surprising reaction was from Bruce Springsteen, the hometown hero who Christie fawns over, jamming with Jimmy Fallon to the tune of "Born to Run" with the lyrics changed to reflect the scandal in Fort Lee. You can lose your political allies (my favorite was Christie's dismissal of David Wildstein: "I was the class president and athlete; I don't know what David was doing [in high school]"), but you don't want to lose the cultural icon you linked yourself to.
Ramesh: I'm amazed by how many people are writing off Christie's chances in 2016. The party establishment still thinks he's a winner, his defects from the point of view of the conservative base of the party are a lot smaller than those of the last two nominees, and the latest poll numbers suggest this scandal isn't obsessing voters as much as it is the press. I still think he's got a better shot than anyone else for the Republican presidential nomination. On the other hand, if he ever thought he'd have Springsteen's support in 2016, then he's a fool and deserves to lose.
Margaret: By your criteria, he's a fool. He's like a teenage girl enamored with Justin Bieber (see Jeff Goldberg on attending a concert with Christie). Notice that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates is complaining that the news media hijacked his book, pulling quotes out of context. He put those provocative quotes in, probably at the urging of his publisher to sex it up. He is also smarting under criticism from friends that perhaps he should have waited to undermine the president (and vice president!) until the end of the administration. For someone who gave his book the highfalutin title "Duty," it is within that theme to serve a higher calling than book sales.
Ramesh: Gates's timing does seem to be off. It isn't just that he is undermining an administration in which he served while it's still in power. It's also that, apparently, he didn't do much speaking up about his complaints when he was in the administration. So while Gates has a good reputation as a public servant, I don't think it's going to improve because of this book. On the other hand, the issues he raised about the president's foreign policy, and his relations with military leaders, are still valid ones.
Margaret: Obama's relations with his health-care plan are better. The websites are working and some healthy people are signing up, at least at the rate that they signed up for the similar Massachusetts plan at this stage. I don't like the name "invincibles," with its connotation of Bruce Willis or Will Smith, given to the deadbeats who want to get free care in the emergency room when they fall skiing but don't want to participate in the insurance market like the rest of us. With the small penalty this year, they will be the last to give in, if at all. Still, if 38 percent of those people sign up, it should make the system viable while giving health care to millions who didn't have it. Someone said to me that we are going about this the wrong way, that the cohort of customers Obamacare needs is the 55-year-old gym rats. They pay more and use less.
Ramesh: "Deadbeats" doesn't seem like the right term, either, for young people when we've made it artificially expensive for many of them to buy insurance and also given them incentives not to. Everything I'm reading suggests to me that the system's "viability" is going to depend on some serious transfers of cash from taxpayers to the insurance companies. I suspect that isn't going to be all that politically viable. It occurred to me, though, that the administration could have saved itself a lot of trouble if it had just hired Bridget Anne Kelly to run the Obamacare websites. Say what you will about Christie's ex-aide, she knew how to get things done!