Election 2012

Chris Christie's Self-Centered, Platitudinous Speech and the GOP's Vision Problem

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A number of commentators have noted how long it took for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to mention GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney in his keynote speech at the Republican convention last night, with more than a couple griping that Christie focused entirely too much on himself and his own state.

The first mention of Romney did take a while to appear: Christie spoke more than 1700 words before actually naming the party's nominee. But as Century Foundation Fellow Michael Cohen notes, it's not unheard of for a major party convention keynote address to focus on the speaker rather than on the candidate. Mario Cuomo's 1984 speech at the Democratic convention didn't mention nominee Walter Mondale at all. Nor did Barbara Jordan's 1976 Democratic convention speech mention Jimmy Carter.

It seems understandable that ambitious political stars like Chris Christie would want to focus more on their own story than on the candidate's. That was apparently true of even  the most famous convention speech in recent memory: Barack Obama's 2004 keynote, which helped rocket him to national fame — and, eventually, the presidency. The final speech mentioned John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee, a number of times. But only after substantial revision designed to shine less of the spotlight on Obama and more on Kerry. As David Bernstein's Chicago Magazine piece on the creation of Obama's speech explains:

[Speech coordinator Vicky] Rideout [says] the speech needed trimming and editing. "There was not a lot of Kerry stuff in the first draft," she says. "We had to pump up the Kerry-Edwards stuff and downplay some of the Illinois stuff."

In retrospect, says Axelrod, "the need to edit the speech actually helped it. The truth is, there was some excess in the speech that hurt the flow a little bit. There was a little more detail about his life than we had time to share. So, the process of editing was really a positive."

What was a little more jarring, I think, was the lack of a sustained case for Romney over the entire featured primetime lineup. Only his wife, Ann, devoted an entire speech to burnishing his image. And her speech, which I found charming and appealing, was designed to humanize him — as a father, a husband, a hard working family breadwinner and quietly charitable person — not present a governing vision. Indeed, there was rather little in the way of policy substance last night, especially in Christie's speech, which fleetingly acknowledges conflicts with teacher's unions and battles over the budget but was built almost entirely out of vapid one-liners. Pull a few lines more or less at random from the speech text

There are odes to strong leadership:

But I have learned over time that it applies just as much to leadership. In fact, I think that advice applies to America today more than ever.
I believe we have become paralyzed by our desire to be loved.

And admonitions to Team Red to remember to be as truly awesome as it can be:

We win when we make it about what needs to be done; we lose when we play along with their game of scaring and dividing.

And rhetorical flag planting to mark the importance of this particular moment in presidential history:

Now it's our time to answer history's call.
For make no mistake, every generation will be judged and so will we.

And generically pro-American fluff mixed with generic invocations of Mitt Romney's generic campaign slogan:

I have an answer tonight for the skeptics and the naysayers, the dividers and the defenders of the status quo. I have faith in us. I know we can be the men and women our country calls on us to be. I believe in America and her history.

But unless declaring that "tonight, we're going to choose respect over love" is some sort of very subtle legislative plan, there's precious little in terms a vision for the size, scope, and role of government. Instead, there's unified opposition to the current administration. And that was the way of a lot of last night's speeches: long on criticism of Obama, long on love for America and small business, but short on governing details or legislative goals, and half-hearted in its case for why voters should do any more than oppose the current president. The Republican party knows what it's against, but not what it's for.