Forget the speech for a moment. The action at the Reagan Library Tuesday night was in the question-and-answer period. A woman in the balcony made a heartfelt plea to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to run for president. The audience stood in unified applause. Christie joked that only a megalomanic would say it was a burden to be asked to run for leader of the free world. And then he said that, while he has heard such pleas, the reason to run “has to reside inside.” He added, “I take it in. I’m listening to every word of it and I feel it.” In other words, he’s thinking about it.
It was an emotional moment unlike any other we’ve seen since the 2012 primary season began. Here was a microcosm of the party in the Reagan library imploring the newest GOP rock star to run. They meant it. They were virtually pleading.
His door is now opened. He’s not running; rather, he’s been dragged into the race. We’ll know soon enough if he’ll consent.
As for the speech itself, it was solid and at times inspirational, but it was also confining. Christie is at his best, as he surely showed in the Q and A, when he is off-script and using his humor to disarm and skewer. President Obama has given teleprompters a bad name so politicians feel compelled to read their speeches. That unfortunately breaks the flow of their text and limits the power of their delivery.
That said, the speech had some high points and a theme that is presidential campaign-worthy. Here’s his pitch:
At one time in our history, our greatness was a reflection of our country’s innovation, our determination, our ingenuity and the strength of our democratic institutions. When there was a crisis in the world, America found a way to come together to help our allies and fight our enemies. When there was a crisis at home, we put aside parochialism and put the greater public interest first. And in our system, we did it through strong presidential leadership. We did it through Reagan-like leadership.
Unfortunately, through our own domestic political conduct of late, we have failed to live up to our own tradition of exceptionalism. Today, our role and ability to affect change has been diminished because of our own problems and our inability to effectively deal with them.
In short, he told us that we have a president who won’t lead and a country that requires courageous leadership in order to do difficult things. He made the case for leadership (and his own candidacy, implicitly) by explaining what he did in New Jersey:
In New Jersey over the last 20 months, you have actually seen divided government that is working. To be clear, it does not mean that we have no argument or acrimony. There are serious disagreements, sometimes expressed loudly—Jersey style.
Here is what we did. We identified the problems. We proposed specific means to fix them. We educated the public on the dire consequences of inaction. And we compromised, on a bi-partisan basis, to get results. We took action.
How so, you ask? Leadership and compromise.
Leadership and compromise is the only way you can balance two budgets with over $13 billion in deficits without raising taxes while protecting core services.
Leadership and compromise is the only way you reform New Jersey’s pension and health benefits system that was collectively $121 billion underfunded.
Leadership and compromise is the only way you cap the highest property taxes in the nation and cap the interest arbitration awards of some of the most powerful public sector unions in the nation at no greater than a 2% increase.
In New Jersey we have done this, and more, because the Executive Branch has not sat by and waited for others to go first to suggest solutions to our state’s most difficult problems.
The anti-Obama, if you will. As to the title of the speech, American Exceptionalism, he coined a new phrase:
A lot is being said in this election season about American exceptionalism. Implicit in such statements is that we are different and, yes, better, in the sense that our democracy, our economy and our people have delivered. But for American exceptionalism to truly deliver hope and a sterling example to the rest of the world, it must be demonstrated, not just asserted. If it is demonstrated, it will be seen and appreciated and ultimately emulated by others. They will then be more likely to follow our example and our lead.
. . . .
Without the authority that comes from that exceptionalism—earned American exceptionalism—we cannot do good for other countries, we cannot continue to be a beacon of hope for the world to aspire to for their future generations.
As for the president, Christie used a “more in sadness than in anger” tone. What happened to the lofty DNC keynote rhetoric of 2004 (“no blue states, no red states”)? Why no leadership from Obama even in championing his own Simpson-Bowles commission?
With regard to foreign policy, Christie showed some Reagan-esque streaks. He asked why we should care about the impact our domestic policy has on our foreign policy: “We should care because we believe, as President Reagan did, that democracy is the best protector of human dignity and freedom. And we know this because history shows that mature democracies are less likely to resort to force against their own people or their neighbors. . . . Around the world — in the Middle East, in Asia, in Africa and Latin America — people are debating their own political and economic futures — right now. We have a stake in the outcome of their debates. For example, a Middle East that is largely democratic and at peace will be a Middle East that accepts Israel, rejects terrorism, and is a dependable source of energy.”
Yet he also hesitated to embrace a full-blown Bush freedom agenda. (“We certainly cannot force others to adopt our principles through coercion. Local realities count; we cannot have forced makeovers of other societies in our image. We need to limit ourselves overseas to what is in our national interest so that we can rebuild the foundations of American power here at home — foundations that need to be rebuilt in part so that we can sustain a leadership role in the world for decades to come.”) He’s going to need to reconcile those two sentiments, should he comply with the wishes, indeed the fervent hopes, of many conservatives to run for president.
It is up to Christie, as it has always been. If he runs, he’ll have excitement and money by the bushelful. He’ll be able to throw some elbows (dinging Texas Gov. Rick Perry on subsidizing in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants while celebrating legal immigration), and talk off the cuff. He may not win the nomination, but, boy, would it be fun to see him try.