Neither decision is official, but if reports this week end up being correct, this year’s party conventions will feature a stark and riveting contrast among keynote speakers.
Early in the week, NBC News and the New York Post reported that Chris Christie would be the Republicans’ featured speaker at their Tampa convention. Mitt Romney’s campaign has refused to confirm the report, though, and Christie himself was mum on the subject when questioned on Thursday. Also on Thursday, the Boston Globe reported that an Obama campaign official had confirmed that Elizabeth Warren was a candidate to deliver the Democratic keynote speech in Charlotte.
There’s no guarantee they’ll be chosen, but Christie and Warren are unusually obvious and logical candidates for the slots. Both have exploded onto the national scene during the Obama presidency by articulating their parties' basic message and values with more charisma and precision than anyone else – including, arguably, their parties’ nominees.
Granted, this isn’t necessarily saying much when it comes to the GOP. Mitt Romney is a competent public speaker, but hardly electrifying, and his goal as a candidate has been to convey simple competence, with as little controversy and specificity as possible. He’s not trying to dazzle the masses and sell a bold vision; he just wants to be a broadly acceptable protest vehicle for economically frustrated swing voters.
Christie, by contrast, is an unusually talented communicator, albeit one whose temper can rub people the wrong way. But he also has a flair for unscripted theatrics and is capable of mixing humor and self-deprecation into speeches, interviews and town hall forums. As governor, he’s scotched New Jersey’s “millionaire’s tax” and gone to war with public employee unions and won, capturing the imagination of the Obama-era Republican base. His positions are not all in line with today’s right (immigration might have been a problem for him had he run for president), but Christie puts the best face on a national Republican Party that since 2009 has often been defined by a bitter resentment of Obama.
On the Democratic side, Warren is famous for the viral video that launched her Senate campaign last fall, a dazzlingly coherent distillation of the social contract. She was already a favorite of progressive bloggers at that point, but her ability to issue such a strong and digestible rebuttal to the GOP’s cries of “class warfare” certified her as a national Democratic star. It seemed to be Warren that Obama was trying to imitate last week when he made the “you didn’t build that” comment that Republicans are now pretending was an attack on businesses. Obama, obviously, is a gifted orator, but Warren may have him beat when it comes to riffing on income inequality and fair taxation, issues at the heart of the divide between the two parties.
Keynote slots are known for their potential to launch up-and-coming political figures. Obama, a virtually unknown Illinois state senator when he took the stage in Boston in 2004, is the most celebrated example of this. There was also Mario Cuomo, who was in his second year as New York’s governor when he addressed the 1984 Democratic convention. His speech was so powerful that his party was still begging him to run for president eight years later, though he never took the plunge.
Of course, keynotes can flop, too. Harold Ford was Al Gore’s choice for the 2000 convention, but his speech was utterly unmemorable, and he’s been out of politics since losing a Senate race in 2006. And does anyone even remember Mark Warner’s keynote address for Democrats last time around? Or Phil Gramm’s 1992 speech to the Republican convention?
But Christie and Warren are already known as rising national stars and are already celebrated for their communication skills. If the Republican nomination is open in 2016, Christie will probably be a top contender for it (although losing a reelection bid in New Jersey next year, which is unlikely but not out of the question, would complicate this). And if Warren beats Scott Brown this fall, the call from progressives for her to run in 2016 will begin immediately. A strong keynote speech from either wouldn’t be a revelation to the political world as much as it would be confirmation.