The Heresies of Chris Christie

In his speech at the Reagan Library, the outspoken New Jersey governor challenged his fellow conservatives on four vital points

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Speeches delivered at the Reagan Library must praise President Reagan, zing Barack Obama, and assert the greatness of the United States. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie hit all those notes Tuesday night. But he also made four key assertions that are now heretical within the Republican Party, and the significance of his speech is almost entirely wrapped up in those passages of politely stated dissent.

1. Compromise is core to politics, a necessary characteristic of good leadership, and the only way to solve problems. This is anathema to a lot of the conservative movement, who regard compromise as tantamount to selling out principle, and support candidates like Michele Bachmann precisely because of their reputation for being stubbornly uncompromising.

2. American exceptionalism isn't a natural state of being or an inheritance -- it is something to which we aspire, and we're presently falling short. "For American exceptionalism to truly deliver hope and a sterling example to the rest of the world, it must be demonstrated, not just asserted," he said. "Unfortunately, through our own domestic political conduct of late, we have failed to live up to our own tradition of exceptionalism. Today, our role and ability to affect change has been diminished because of our own problems and our inability to effectively deal with them." Contrast that with Marco Rubio's recent speech at the Reagan Library, where American exceptionalism was cast as self-evident due to wars we'd won against Nazis and Communists, people we'd freed in decades past -- it was, Rubio said, "our legacy as a people."

3. Americans should care what foreigners think of us. The world is watching when our politics is mired in dysfunctional infighting and stubborn refusal to compromise, he noted, and "There is no better way to reinforce the likelihood that others in the world will opt for more open societies and economies than to demonstrate that our own system is working."

4. Americans cannot remake the world in our image through force. "We certainly cannot force others to adopt our principles through coercion," he said. "Local realities count; we cannot have forced makeovers of other societies in our image. We need to limit ourselves overseas to what is in our national interest so that we can rebuild the foundations of American power here at home - foundations that need to be rebuilt in part so that we can sustain a leadership role in the world for decades to come." Does Bill Kristol still want him to run?

What's interesting about these heresies is that none are a particularly groundbreaking insight, but all are fighting words on today's right. That's why, even though Gov. Christie isn't running for president, he warrants a place in the national public discourse. Conservatives would do well to grapple with his words.

Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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