Friday, February 23, 2018
Politics

New Jersey governor Christie delivers prime-time dud at the RNC in Tampa

TAMPA — There is no mistaking what a successful keynote speech for Chris Christie would have looked and sounded like. There would have been an electric reaction from the crowd in the convention hall. It would have been followed by waves of effusive media commentary about how people had just heard the future of the Republican Party.

Judged by these standards, there is also no mistaking what the New Jersey governor delivered instead: A prime-time belly-flop, one that notably failed to clear either of those two high bars.

The reaction in the audience was mildly enthusiastic, and muted in comparison to the reception given to Ann Romney just minutes before Christie spoke. Political commentary about the 24-minute speech while some of it has been favorable has been dominated by discussion of whether Christie offered too many words about himself and too few about Romney or about the kind of original and provocative ideas that many were expecting on such a major occasion.

The fallout on Wednesday was the talk of Tampa and left Christie on the defensive to avoid lasting damage to his political fortunes.

In one prominent example of the poor reviews for Christie, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace noted how long it took for the speech to mention Romney and called it "the most curious keynote speech I have ever heard. ... For a moment, I forgot who was the nominee of the party."

"I thought it was a tremendous disappointment," added Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, saying the speech did nothing to advance the ball against Obama, or for Romney.

"It didn't have any purpose that served his party and his nominee," he said. "It's almost like he wanted to prove that he wasn't just a guy who could turn tables over and speak truth to power."

There were glimpses of the pugnacious style and no-nonsense governing message that have turned Christie into a rising star. Karl Rove, speaking on Fox, called the speech "very well done," while Time's Mark Halperin, speaking on MSNBC, said Christie projected leadership.

The problem is that a high-profile keynote address can never be taken strictly on its own terms.

Expectations were soaring for the speech, fanned by Christie's own team, which put out a news release trying to stir up excitement for the address. Many political insiders gathered in Tampa and everyone on Romney's team were well aware of a Monday New York Post story that reported Christie declined to be considered as Romney's vice president because he would have had to resign as governor and he thought it was a long shot that the Republican ticket would win this time. A few weeks ago, he openly said at a town hall that he would consider running in 2016 if Romney loses an honest answer, but certainly not a politic one.

At the same time, Christie's and Ann Romney's appearances did not seem to mesh well. She talked in sentimental terms about her husband and the importance of love. After a rushed break between the speeches, he came on to talk about how it is more important to be respected than loved. He didn't show humor and for all his celebrated tough-guy image, he didn't come off especially as the mix-it-up tough guy who is gifted at impromptu sparring with reporters and constituents. Instead, he issued airy, detail-free admonitions about truth-telling, hard choices and American greatness.

And the speech is being viewed through the prism of two numbers: 16 was the number of minutes that passed as Christie talked about his personal history and New Jersey record before he mentioned Mitt Romney's name. Seven was the total number of times he referred to Romney by name.

Christie addressed this Wednesday at breakfast for New Hampshire and Pennsylvania delegates. With Ann Romney speaking first, Christie said in comments quoted on the BuzzFeed website, "it freed me up. Remember, she was supposed to be going Monday night and because of the hurricane, it was canceled so instead both of us were on the same night."

"It actually freed me up to put the choice into more general terms. It allowed me to be able to let Ann Romney talk about Mitt Romney the person."

It may be cold comfort to Christie, but history shows it is hard to specify precisely what characteristics make convention addresses widely regarded as great — Mario Cuomo's keynote in 1984 and Barack Obama's in 2004 both instantly gave these Democrats national profiles — and those regarded as bombs, such as Bill Clinton's nominating speech in 1988.

The differences are subtle, as Mark Twain said about the difference between the right word and the almost-right word, "the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

Obama, who clearly made lightning, talked about himself a lot, just like Christie, who is dealing with blowback from his lightning-bug speech. Obama got halfway through his call for a new brand of politics before mentioning Kerry 13 times.

Cuomo, in contrast, mentioned nominee Walter Mondale exactly zero times. His speech was primarily an attack written in lyrical, almost elegiac language against President Ronald Reagan. Some commentators on Wednesday were surprised Christie did not make a more aggressive case against Obama.

What Christie is facing may be something close to what Clinton faced at the Atlanta convention. That speech was a perfectly fluent summons to Democrats. Like Christie's, it had been preceded by great anticipation because Clinton, then 42, had been widely touted as the future of the party. But it was clear that his words bored delegates in the convention hall, who were shown on TV paying no attention as Clinton droned on (for 33 minutes but it felt far longer) and mocked him with his only sustained applause line when he announced "in conclusion."

After Christie's speech, some came to his rescue. Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and presidential contender, said it wasn't really Christie's job to promote Romney.

"His role as the keynote speaker was to set the sort of background for what this campaign is going to be about: a contrast of ideas and ways of looking at government," Giuliani said on CNN.

But where some saw effective restraint, others saw flatness.

"I think the greater problem with the speech is that it didn't have the kind of uplifting, optimistic tone or substance that you need to have if you're going to do what Obama did in 2004," said John Heilemann on MSNBC's Way Too Early. "He looked kind of angry through the speech, and he looked angrier than he sounded. But there was not a lot ... of happy warrior in Chris Christie."

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