Ann Romney’s speech to the Republican National Convention was supposed to be about love—the love she has for husband, and the love they hope they can share and show to the country. It was a nice riff, and would have been a great way to the end the night. Instead, it was the warm-up to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who had a different message: Forget love, the only thing that matters is respect. “I believe we have become paralyzed by our desire to be loved,” said Christie, urging Republicans—and voters—to abandon the search for a candidate they like and instead choose someone who would get things done.
What’s odd is that this wasn’t a pitch for Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor didn’t make an appearance until late in the speech, and even then, he was presented in terms ludicrous to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of his political persona. Christie presented Romney as someone who will tell “hard truths” to the American people, as if it weren’t already quite apparent—to everyone—that Romney won the Republican nomination by running away from hard truths and telling everyone what they wanted to hear.
More than anything, this was a speech for Chris Christie. He extolled his record in New Jersey—without mentioning the state’s record-high 9.6 percent unemployment—while praising the bipartisan accomplishments of his administration, and promised to bring similar leadership to Washington. He was making a pitch for diminished resources and smaller hopes, with a focus on community and “shared sacrifice”:
The disciples of yesterday’s politics underestimated the will of the people. They assumed our people were selfish; that when told of the difficult problems, tough choices and complicated solutions, they would simply turn their backs, that they would decide it was every man for himself. Instead, the people of New Jersey stepped up and shared in the sacrifice.
In short, it was a manifesto for “Christie-ism”—an aggressively anti-worker conservatism that uses working-class affect and the promise of solidarity to push right-wing policies and mask a broader assault on the social safety net. It’s an approach that could take Christie to the White House. Indeed, this speech was a virtual audition for 2016 and Christie’s inevitable run for the presidency if Romney loses in November.
Of course, it should be said that, for all the focus on tough leadership and hard truths, there was little of either on display in Christie’s address. Christie hit familiar targets—government spending, public-sector unions and Democrats. He made familiar promises to fix entitlements. He said nothing about the one great Republican taboo: higher taxes on the most well-off.
With his calls for “fundamentally smaller government,” the shared sacrifice of Chris Christie (and Mitt Romney) falls entirely on the most marginal members of society: the seniors who rely on Medicaid to pay for long-term care, the students who use Pell Grants to help pay for their college education, the families who use food stamps to get by when the economy is tough, the children who can go to the dentist because the government has invested in their health and well-being.
Christie’s keynote clocked in at under 30 minutes, but his speech was representative of the rhetoric on display at the convention: Built on discredited ideas, it used a shell of substance to hide a cruel and selfish vision of America.