It was an extraordinary night out at the Reagan library. I have never seen a crowd so literally desperate for someone to run for president, nor seen such a heartfelt and frank appeal to someone to run as from the woman who got up in the balcony to implore Christie to think about (he didn’t say he wouldn’t). The governor seemed moved by the entire experience. His speech was plain-spoken rather than eloquent, but benefited from Christie’s emphatic and sincere delivery. A few points about it:
1) Christie defined Reagan in very Christie-like terms: As the guy who confronted a union and therefore restored America’s image and leadership. The speech focused more on Reagan as leader than on his specific policies.
2) There was a strong element of Mitch Daniels at CPAC in the speech. Christie made the case for principle but also for pragmatism as necessary to advancing the cause in the real world. “Leadership and compromise” was his mantra in one section.
3) He implicitly criticized Republicans in Congress for being too partisan and for their role in the debt-limit fight. If he ran and were the nominee, we’d obviously see some of the same dynamic as Bush in 2000, with Christie distancing himself from congressional Republicans and running as “a uniter.” He touted his bi-partisanship in New Jersey, just as Bush talked of his work with Democrats in Texas.
4) It wasn’t a “come home America” speech, but the focus was on fixing our domestic problems as the way to lead the world: “America’s role and significance in the world is defined, first and foremost, by who we are at home.”
5) For all the calls for bi-partisanship and compromise in the speech, it was a savage attack on President Obama’s leadership. “In New Jersey…the Executive Branch has not sat by and waited for others to go first to suggest solutions to our state’s most difficult problems.” Obama wants to keep Washington at an arm’s length and condemn it for its pettiness, divisiveness, bad faith, and lack of results. Christie put all of those things right back on him. As an outsider with strong leadership qualities of his own, Christie is ideally suited to pursue this line of argument.
Every presidential candidate needs a narrative. Christie’s is that he’s the truth-teller who cares above all about getting things done: “When there is a problem, you fix it.” He’d be “honest and tough,” as he described his approach to the debt, in working to renew America in keeping with its finest traditions. From this speech you’d conclude that if he runs he’s going to be less timid than Romney but less rigid than Perry. And, on this night at least, the conservatives at the Reagan library ate it up.