Chris Christie began his much-awaited remarks at the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington recently with an anecdote that seemed to portend some tough talk for his fellow Republicans.
In his early days as governor of New Jersey, Christie recalled, a looming fiscal crisis forced him to confront the state's powerful public employee unions, who enjoyed benefits so generous that they were bankrupting the state. Christie had to trim pensions and benefits to put New Jersey on a sound fiscal footing.
Obviously, the unions were unhappy. They booed when Christie met them face-to-face at a firefighters' convention. But, as Christie recounted to CPAC, he had to tell the hard truth about the state's financial situation. They needed to know.
"You may hate me now," Christie said he told the group, "but 10 years from now, after I've made the changes that need to be made and you're collecting your pensions, you'll be looking for my address on the Internet to send me a thank-you note."
The lesson of the story seemed clear at CPAC, when Christie faced Republicans and conservatives who have won the popular vote in just one of the last six presidential elections; who were roundly defeated in 2012 amid economic conditions that likely would have assured victory at any other time; and who are on the losing end of demographic trends that could prove disastrous for the party in coming decades. Perhaps more than anything, Republicans desperately need ideas to reconnect with middle-class voters who have abandoned the GOP in droves.
So did the famously outspoken Christie tell the gathered Republicans and conservatives any hard truths they didn't want to hear? Did he say they might hate him now but that in 10 years they'll be sending him thank-you notes?
Not at all.
The moral of the New Jersey story for Republicans, Christie said, is not that the GOP needs to face any difficult realities, but that they have a messaging problem. "We've got to start talking about what we're for, and not what we're against," Christie said. "And the reason we have to start talking about what we're for and not continuing to rail against what we're against is because of one simple reason: Our ideas are better than their ideas, and that is what we have to stand up for."
It's the oldest shibboleth in politics, especially favored by parties that have problems with the voters but don't particularly want to change: Our positions are great, we just need to communicate them better.
Christie went on to bash Washington -- a must for any governor on the speaking circuit. He took a shot at Harry Reid -- a deserving target if there ever was one, but not really instructive for Republicans planning victory in 2014 and 2016. And he praised fellow Republican governors -- Scott Walker in Wisconsin, John Kasich in Ohio, Rick Snyder in Michigan and Rick Scott in Florida. They took on unions, lowered taxes and created jobs, all while relying on fundamental GOP values like smaller government and the free market.
"Governors are about getting things done," Christie said.
Christie directed a few barbs at President Obama -- another deserving target -- and then a few more at Washington. And then a few at Democrats in general. "They're the party of intolerance, and not us."
Finally, there was this: "We have to stop letting the media define who we are and what we stand for."
A speech that started out promising hard truths turned into a pretty easy message for the conservatives gathered at CPAC. Our ideas are best, we need to improve our messaging, and, by the way, we've got to stand up to the liberal media. That doesn't involve much soul-searching.
To be fair, Christie included a few rhetorical departures from the standard Republican talk. For example, he stressed that he is pro-life, but added, "When we say that we're pro-life ... that doesn't mean we're pro-life just when that human being is in the womb. We need to be pro-life when they leave the womb as well, for every step of their lives." Christie said that means more GOP ideas for education, for creating opportunity, for creating jobs -- and to help people who stumble in life, like those who become addicted to drugs.
It's not a surprise that Christie didn't venture far beyond Republican orthodoxy at CPAC. After all, he wasn't even invited last year. Now, he's most likely running for president and, fighting scandal at home, doesn't need to alienate some of his party's most loyal voters.
But there are a lot of Republicans who believe the GOP continues to need a serious talking-to and that Christie could be the man to do it. If he is, he didn't show it at CPAC.