A Preview of Chris Christie’s Keynote Address

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's keynote address on Tuesday at the Republican National Convention will be a pitch for Mitt Romney in November. More important, it will also be a subtle pitch for Christie in 2016 if Romney loses.

Achieving both of these goals will require a delicate balance. For a clue of how Christie will achieve it, look at the speech he gave at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library last fall, when many Republicans still thought he might enter the 2012 race.

If Romney loses, there will be a debate over why. Some candidates will run on the proposition that Romney lost because he wasn’t a true conservative. Others will say Republicans were burdened by the House Republicans' unpopular policy program, authored by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, and that the next nominee must run closer to the center.

Christie’s record in New Jersey is too substantively centrist to run as the darling of the party’s right. Instead, if he runs in four years, he’ll have to make the case for a more compromising and consultative politics that tries to occupy the center, modeled on his successes in New Jersey.

So in the keynote, Christie will attack Washington politicians (and especially President Barack Obama) for bickering instead of solving problems, and will argue that Romney (but really Christie) has the leadership skills to get politicians in Washington to work together like they do in New Jersey.

That’s basically what he did in his Reagan Library speech:

In New Jersey over the last 20 months, you have actually seen divided government that is working. To be clear, it does not mean that we have no argument or acrimony. There are serious disagreements, sometimes expressed loudly -- Jersey style.

Here is what we did. We identified the problems. We proposed specific means to fix them. We educated the public on the dire consequences of inaction. And we compromised, on a bipartisan basis, to get results. We took action.

How so, you ask? Leadership and compromise.

It’s not a message you hear often from Republicans these days, but Christie sells compromise as a virtue. And it works because his tough-guy image allows him to cut deals in the political center without looking weak to conservatives.

In the Reagan Library speech, Christie was intensely critical of Obama for his failure to compromise, but also sharply criticized Congress and, implicitly, its Republican leadership. He listed various pieces of legislation he has agreed to with his Democratically controlled state legislature, and then said:

In New Jersey we have done this with a legislative branch, held by the opposite party, because it is led by two people who have more often put the interests of our state above the partisan politics of their caucuses.…

In Washington, on the other hand, we have watched as we drift from conflict to conflict, with little or no resolution.

We watch a president who once talked about the courage of his convictions, but still has yet to find the courage to lead.

We watch a Congress at war with itself because they are unwilling to leave campaign-style politics at the Capitol’s door. The result is a debt ceiling limitation debate that made our democracy appear as if we could no longer effectively govern ourselves.

Watch for Christie to wish Obama could be "reasonable" like New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney, Christie’s often bitter sparring partner who is also a co-architect of many of his key legislative accomplishments; or like Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who has allied with Christie on education and municipal finance issues.

But Christie’s case against Washington’s dysfunction is a bipartisan one. The implied problem in the Reagan Library speech is not just that Washington’s Democrats aren’t more like New Jersey’s, but also that its Republicans aren’t more like Chris Christie.

His debt-ceiling comments were particularly striking. Romney, and every other Republican presidential candidate except Jon Huntsman, opposed the debt-ceiling deal and would have gone even closer to the brink of federal government illiquidity. By calling the debt-ceiling impasse the embarrassment that it was, Christie broke with the obstruct-everywhere consensus that has defined the Republican Party since 2009.

This is the Republican convention, so Christie won’t openly attack Republicans in Congress for their unwillingness to compromise. But the subtext will be there, just as it was in the Reagan Library speech -- and it will become more overt if the Romney-Ryan ticket loses and Christie runs as the “Washington Is Broken” candidate in 2016.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. E-mail him and follow him on Twitter.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Josh Barro

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.