To hear Christie tell it, American exceptionalism is hollow — indeed, it may not even exist — unless the nation, to his satisfaction, has “demonstrated” and “earned” it. I’m fairly certain this isn’t close to what the right has in mind.
Put it this way: what do you suppose the reaction would be if President Obama declared that the United States still has to “earn” American exceptionalism. I suspect the right would be apoplectic; his Republican rivals would speak of nothing else, and the White House would never hear the end of it.
If Obama said something similar, Republicans very well might be apoplectic, but then many of them have spent the better part of two years throwing a fit over remarks Obama made during a visit to Europe two years ago in which he explicitly endorsed American exceptionalism. Critics have latched on to the first part of his answer on this, and then deliberately ignored everything that followed it. That suggests that there is nothing that Obama could say in connection with American exceptionalism that would not be misconstrued or turned into meaning the opposite of what he intended to say.
Turning to Christie’s speech, we see that he didn’t say quite what Benen thinks he said. He said this:
A lot is being said in this election season about American exceptionalism. Implicit in such statements is that we are different and, yes, better, in the sense that our democracy, our economy and our people have delivered. But for American exceptionalism to truly deliver hope and a sterling example to the rest of the world [bold mine-DL], it must be demonstrated, not just asserted. If it is demonstrated, it will be seen and appreciated and ultimately emulated by others. They will then be more likely to follow our example and our lead.
This is comparable to what Andrew Ferguson wrote last year:
Thanks to the ingenuity, persistence, and sacrifice of earlier generations, our obligation now is to conserve the arrangements that make us exceptional, reaffirm them, and prepare to pass them on, with an abiding faith in personal liberty. And this much should be obvious: If Americans don’t believe “we’re the greatest country ever,” we won’t be for much longer.
Both Christie and Ferguson take for granted that America has been and must continue to be exceptional and better, they acknowledge the possibility that Americans can fail to maintain or preserve this status in the future, and hold out the prospect that ours might cease to be “the greatest country ever” if we do the wrong things. No one is more anxious about declining power than a hegemonist. If American exceptionalism is defined in terms of global power and preeminence, as hegemonists have tended to define it recently, there is always the chance that America can cease to be exceptional, which is why they are so hostile to anything that hints at reducing the U.S. role in the world or trimming the military budget.
Christie’s entire speech is a warning that current leadership is jeopardizing exceptional status, which he then claims will have various undesirable consequences around the world. It is not quite as annoying as Paul Ryan’s speech to the Hamilton Society a few months ago, partly because Christie steers clear of offering any specific comments on history or international affairs, but in its overall message it is very similar. In short, Christie doesn’t face condemnation for “heresy” because he hasn’t really contradicted the Republican hawkish line on American exceptionalism. He is saying that current leadership (including Republicans in Congress) has been undermining U.S. leadership in the world, and for the most part that is something that Republican hawks have been arguing for quite a while.
He isn’t advocating for undiluted neoconservative foreign policy the way that Ryan and Rubio do, but he also hasn’t gone as far as Daniels or Huntsman in questioning the value of certain aspects of the U.S. role overseas. For example, Christie shows no sign of wanting to reduce, trim, or even reform the military budget:
The United States must be prepared to act. We must be prepared to lead. This takes resources—resources for defense, for intelligence, for homeland security, for diplomacy. The United States will only be able to sustain a leadership position around the world if the resources are there—but the necessary resources will only be there if the foundations of the American economy are healthy. So our economic health is a national security issue as well.
While it is true that he made some remarks about not using coercion to force principles on others, most Republican hawks are not going to be unduly offended by this because they believe that the U.S. doesn’t do this. Christie also says that we need “to limit ourselves overseas to what is in our national interest,” which sounds promising, but Christie doesn’t lay out what that entails. Depending on how expansive Christie’s definition of national interest is, he might be endorsing an extremely ambitious foreign policy or a cautious and modest one. Regardless, even this limitation is something that will only last as long as it takes to “rebuild the foundations of American power here at home.” These are “foundations that need to be rebuilt in part so that we can sustain a leadership role in the world for decades to come,” which means that Christie sees any reduction in the U.S. role abroad to be nothing more than a brief pause before the U.S. resumes a hegemonic role later on. Unlike Daniels, he isn’t entertaining ideas of cutting Pentagon funding for the sake of fiscal sanity, and he says nothing that would lead us to believe that he thinks there are any overseas deployments and commitments the U.S. should give up.
Like Pawlenty, Ryan, and Rubio, he even sets up the ridiculous isolationist strawman, but doesn’t use the word:
The argument for getting our own house in order is not an argument for turning our back on the world.
So we see that Christie accepts the hegemonist argument that the only two choices are global leadership (apparently forever) and “turning our back on the world.”
Update (9/29): The Wall Street Journal approves of Christie’s interpretation.