New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie—living up to his straight talk reputation— confessed to the country on Tuesday night that slashing the size government would cause some pain, but he neglected to mention exactly where it would hurt the most.
“The problems are too big to let the American people lose – the slowest economic recovery in decades, a spiraling out of control deficit, an education system that’s failing to compete in the world,” said Christie, the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention. “Our problems are big and the solutions will not be painless. We all must share in the sacrifice. Any leader that tells us differently is simply not telling the truth.”
His words fit into a broader theme—as other Republican governors, including Ohio’s John Kasich and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, gave speeches claiming that Washington should adopt their solutions: cut taxes, slice spending, and challenge the contracts of public employee unions. Their message was that Republican nominee Mitt Romney -- who watched from the audience with his wife Ann—will “tell us the hard truths,” as Christie put it, about the government having been bloated to a bankrupting girth.
It’s a strong talking point for Americans fed up by deficits that have exceeded $1 trillion for the past four years.
But the harder truth for Republican governors to tell would have been the consequences of their tough choices to balance state budgets—massive layoffs that have kept the unemployment rate from falling below its current 8.3 percent.
That truth would have opened a genuine policy debate, but it would have killed the pep rally that energized the Republican base in Tampa. And the entire goal of the convention is to galvanize voters, not to engage in discussions more appropriate for a think tank panel.
The layoffs were initially limited because of President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package—with its $800 billion price tag that Republicans have routinely blasted for increasing the national debt. But as the stimulus spending trickled to a stop, the layoffs of state and local government employees mounted because with the exception of New Hampshire, states have mandates to balance their budgets. At that time, with private sector layoffs rising along with unemployment benefits, and tax revenues falling, most states had little choice.
Since July, 2008, local governments have shed 542,000 jobs and states have let go of 138,000 employees, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Without those firings, the unemployment would roughly be close to 7.8 percent.
Tough choices exact genuine prices. And Christie framed his speech—which NPR claims went through at least 14 drafts—around the idea that Obama would rather be popular than honest with the American people.
The New Jersey governor drew on a childhood lesson from his mother in choosing whether to be “respected” or “loved.”
“She said to always pick being respected, that love without respect was always fleeting—but that respect could grow into real, lasting love,” the New Jersey governor said. “Now, of course, she was talking about women. But I have learned over time that it applies just as much to leadership. In fact, I think that advice applies to America today more than ever. I believe we have become paralyzed by our desire to be loved.”
The message complemented the remarks by Ann Romney meant to humanize her husband, “It’s the moms who really hold this country together … I love you, women!”
Now to be fair, Obama has been candid about the unsustainable spending by the federal government, calling for tax increases on those making more than $250,000 a year to reduce annual deficits. But that is simply a policy that most Republicans oppose—and a critical question involving the year-end fiscal cliff that will be decided by the presidential election.
The Christie speech was a careful judo attack designed to leverage one of President Obama’s strengths—his likability—against him.
Multiple polls show Romney and Obama as close to even, with the former Massachusetts governor generating more trust on economic leadership but consistently falling short when it comes to relating with voters.
Gallup released a survey on Friday showing that Obama is more “likeable” than Romney (54 percent vs. 31 percent) and “cares about the needs of people like you” (52 percent vs. 36 percent). An online Reuters/Ipsos poll issued Monday found a similar likability gap, as respondents by an overwhelming margin described Obama as more eloquent, as a “good person,” and “fun to meet in person.”
“You see, Mr. President,” said Christie, who never referred to Obama by name, “real leaders don’t follow polls. Real leaders change polls. That’s what we need to do now. Change polls through the power of our principles. Change polls through the strength of our convictions.”
That, fundamentally, is what Republicans aimed to do on Tuesday night—change the polls in Romney’s favor in the fleeting months before November. And by Christie’s own criteria, whether Romney can bend the polls toward his own vision will be the test of whether the Republican nominee is a “real” leader.