As Jonathan mentioned, aside from the as-yet-unidentified “special guest” speaker at this week’s GOP convention, the most anticipated speech is probably tonight’s keynote from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Christie has certainly raised expectations, not just for the speech but for his gubernatorial tenure as well. Famous for his confrontational style and honesty, there is a certain degree of pressure on Christie to leave a legacy in New Jersey that matches the rhetoric.
But what those tempted to dismiss his tough talk as mere bluster don’t quite seem to understand is that, in many ways, the rhetoric has already fundamentally altered the state’s politics and the national conversation on important issues. As Jonathan Last wrote in a dispatch from the convention this morning:
Since 1954 the Garden State had had only two successful Republican governors. Tom Kean and Christine Todd Whitman were both impressive politicians, yet they were technocrats. They made the state government function by maneuvering within the existing political culture.
Christie is different; he’s remade New Jersey’s political landscape. “The political culture has changed,” says state senator Joe Kyrillos. “People aren’t afraid to talk about things that were once taboo.” Public-sector unions, deficits, spending—subjects that used to lurk in the shadowy mists of abstract policy discussion—are now the meat and potatoes of New Jersey politics. And that’s all because of Christie, who possesses the political version of Steve Jobs’s legendary reality-distortion field. “Through the sheer force of his personality he has reshaped the political culture of the state,” Kyrillos says. And Kyrillos isn’t just saying that. He’s testing the hypothesis by running against incumbent Democratic senator Bob Menendez.
Having grown up in the Garden State, and working as a reporter there as well, I can tell you that Last’s bit about the “reality-distortion field” is spot-on. There are times when something sounds great in your head, but significantly less so once you say it out loud. And then there are times when something sounds ridiculous until spoken aloud, when it suddenly makes perfect sense. Christie’s reforms, in the context of New Jersey’s political conversation, were an example of the latter.
And he is, of course, far from the only politician challenging the public union status quo. There are other Republicans, like Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal, who have done so. And there are even Northeastern Democrats, like New York’s Andrew Cuomo, who may have only made modest changes, but in Albany that’s not nothing.
The point is not that the tough rhetoric is sufficient—Christie has already enacted meaningful reforms, as have Walker and Jindal. It’s that those reforms were made possible by first changing the conversation. Support for such reforms has grown nationally, and that’s not because the idea suddenly popped into voters’ minds—voters who just a few years ago would never have considered such proposals. Chris Christie may be entertaining to watch and listen to, but he isn’t at the convention this year to entertain. Everyone in that room tonight should be taking notes.