E.J. Dionne Jr.
Opinion writer August 29, 2012

Paul Ryan, who had his big moment here Wednesday night, is known for his devotion to a fitness regime called P90X, which involves “working out 6-7 days per week, with each workout lasting about 1-1½ hours,” according to WebMD. The Web site adds that “the workouts are so rigorous that you’re asked to take a fitness test before ordering the P90X system, to see whether you’re up to the challenge.”

E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog. He is also a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a government professor at Georgetown University and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio, ABC’s “This Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” View Archive

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will never be caught doing P90X. (Nor will I.) But on Tuesday night, Christie offered his own brand of toughness. “I believe we have become paralyzed,” he declared in his keynote address to the Republican National Convention, “paralyzed by our desire to be loved.”

Who knew that the desire to be loved was a national liability?

Something odd is happening in Mitt Romney’s Republican Party. The GOP is marketing the concept that a great many Americans need to suffer before they can prosper. The government needs the equivalent of a P90X regimen — and never mind checking first whether it will actually be good for the country.

This approach is ingenious because it dismisses all challenges to P90X government as soft and lacking in courage. I’d argue that the country should be rebelling against the idea of showering more riches on the already strong and wealthy while those in the middle or at the bottom are lectured that they should simply work and try harder. Yet anyone who dares say this is accused of failing to understand the magic of self-punishing rigor.

There is a famous Ryan metaphor that he did not choose to revisit in his convention speech. “We are at a moment,” he said in response to President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address, “where if government’s growth is left unchecked and unchallenged, America’s best century will be considered our past century. This is a future in which we will transform our social safety net into a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency.”

A hammock? What, pray, is any liberal proposing that will allow any American to live in such complacency? Trying to make sure that more people have health insurance? Allowing the elderly to retire on that vast $1,230-a-month income provided by the average Social Security check? And then there’s welfare, which in all 50 states leaves recipients with an income equal to less than half the poverty line. Where’s the hammock?

But it was Christie who came up with the most brilliant defense of a social Darwinist world in which those hardworking, job-creating billionaires are said to deserve even more than they already have. Anyone who speaks up against the New Plutocracy is accused, in Christie’s formulation, of longing too much for love. Our nation will be great again, he argued, only if politicians are willing “to say ‘no’ when ‘no’ is what’s required.”

Somehow, saying “no” to further enriching the wealthy is not on the GOP’s agenda.

Indeed, there were telltale moments in Christie’s effective if also deceptive speech. “Our problems are big, and the solutions will not be painless,” he declared. “We all must share in the sacrifice. And any leader that tells us differently is simply not telling the truth.”

Put aside the P90X Republicans’ pride in being the party of pain. What, precisely, is “shared” about giving more tax cuts to Americans with high incomes while cutting programs for those dismissed as hammock-dwellers?

And then there was Christie’s entirely legitimate admiration for his dad. “After returning from Army service,” Christie recounted, “he worked at the Breyers Ice Cream plant in the 1950s. With that job and the GI Bill, he put himself through Rutgers University at night to become the first in his family to earn a college degree.”

Good for his dad. But Christie somehow slid over the fact that it was government — through the GI Bill and by financing New Jersey’s fine state university — that gave the elder Christie his chance to rise. Are we to “sacrifice” the next generation by cutting student loans and even arguing, as is becoming fashionable, that some Americans shouldn’t get the opportunity to go to college?

Christie and Ryan talk a lot about “courage.” It’s an excellent virtue. But where is the courage in giving the wealthy people who are financing your campaigns all they want while accusing those who might vote against you of wishing to spend life in a hammock? P90X economics, apparently, is for everyone except the wealthy.

ejdionne@washpost.com