By Patrick Murray
The reaction to Chris Christie’s speech at the Republican National Convention in a nutshell? Hard core Republicans are disappointed he didn’t call Barack Obama an “idiot” and hard-core Democrats are disappointed he did not say he was “tired of dealing with the crazies” in his own party.
If you look past these unrealistic expectations, though, you will find a speech that is a throwback to loftier days of partisan battles. Chris Christie engaged in the kind of rhetoric that politicians should use more often.
Yes, you read that correctly! Let me explain.
First we need to acknowledge that this speech was more about Chris Christie than anything else. I think the Romney camp would have been happier if he delivered only the middle part of the speech where he laid out the differences between Republican and Democratic ideas and gave a rousing call for Mitt Romney’s leadership.
If you read between the lines, though, he laid out a clear and compelling vision of where he wants the Republican Party to position itself. He told us what he feels the Republican Party – and by extension, American politics – should be about.
Keep in mind, I am not judging his speech on its accuracy. Certainly, when he talked about balancing the budget with “lower taxes,” a typical New Jerseyan’s income and property tax statements may tell a different story. Moreover, claims that his brand of “bipartisanship” is transferable are debatable.
However, to judge his speech solely on its accuracy is an unfair test. All political speeches bend the truth. The question is how much confidence in our political system was evident in this speech.
An odd question, to be sure. But if you listen to the partisan din coming from both the left and the right, our country’s political dialogue has degenerated. Political debate has boiled down to competing assertions that Armageddon is imminent if the other side wins.
Hard-core partisans of both stripes give lip service to the “genius” of our system of government, but their words tell a much different story. Their fire and brimstone rhetoric reveals a deep-seated lack of faith that our republic can survive four years of being governed under a political philosophy other than their own.
It’s not that they simply disagree with the other party’s agenda – it’s that the other party’s agenda by definition, is the handiwork of Satan. And unfortunately, when these hard-core ideologues gain power, they create the kind of gridlock that proves them right. Perhaps our system of government is in peril – not because either side is completely wrong, but because neither side is completely right and isn’t humble enough to admit it.
It’s on this measure that I judge Chris Christie’s speech a success.
The governor talked about the Republican Party being the party that is willing to talk in hard truths and hard choices. And how Republican leadership leads to success. He also drew clear distinctions between the two parties – about who they stand with and what they believe. He attacked Democrats to be sure – as the party afraid to face hard truths and make tough choices; the party that believes people are not willing to make sacrifices; and the party that stands more with unions than workers. He even got in a dig against the incumbent president being overly concerned with opinion polls.
He summed up his view of the Republican brand by saying “Our ideas are right for America and their ideas have failed America.” He could have easily said that the Democrats’ ideas have “destroyed” America, as others in his party have. So, it is commendable that he did not engage in, literally, destructive rhetoric.
What he avoided talking about at all is also revealing. Earlier in the convention, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell summed up much of the day by boiling down the GOP platform to “the sanctity of life, the 2nd amendment, and a balanced budget” – apparently in that order.
That’s why it was glaringly obvious that priorities No. 1 and 2 were completely absent from Christie’s speech. He was saying regardless of what we personally believe on social issues they should not dominate our political discourse.
Christie’s ability to separate his views on social issues from his governing agenda has brought him success in New Jersey. Of course, the question remains whether he can become a national contender without taking on those issues, but his speech indicated that he’s going to try.
In the end, hard-core partisans – those who reside in their respective echo chambers – emerged with strongly divergent views of Christie’s performance. But I was most intrigued by the feedback I heard from some longtime Democratic voters who watched the speech.
They are not fans of Chris Christie and don’t agree with his policies here in New Jersey. As may be expected, they didn’t think he gave a great speech. However, the most telling commentary from these Democrats was that the speech “didn’t bother” them. They would never vote Republican, but they weren’t fearful of the vision Christie laid out.
So, I judge Chris Christie’s speech a success because he was able to be partisan without demonizing the other side. And that is a major step in the right direction.
Of course, we’ll have to see if this kinder, gentler Christie is still evident at his next Jersey Shore boardwalk confrontation.
For one night, though, Chris Christie gave us a glimpse of what a respectful, partisan campaign can look like.
Patrick Murray is the founding director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.