What is ‘earned’ American exceptionalism?

It seems the big overnight political story was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) speech in California, and the breathless speculation about his possible national ambitions. The conjecture varies by media outlet — the governor opened the door to running for president, closed the door to running for president, or dodged the question altogether.

In fairness to the political reporters struggling to read the tea leaves, Christie didn’t exactly make an effort to clarify his intentions. At one point, the governor seemed to deny any interest in running, only to say in the next breath that it would be arrogant of him to ignore those urging him to run. Yeah, that ought to clear things up.

That said, while the political world obsesses over every Christie-related rumor, what I found far more interesting last night was the governor’s speech itself. Most notably, this portion of the pre-written remarks stood out:

“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, it must be demonstrated, not just asserted….

“Without the authority that comes from that exceptionalism — earned American exceptionalism — we cannot do good for other countries, we cannot continue to be a beacon of hope for the world to aspire to for their future generations.”

After having listened to the right for a long while, I’m pretty familiar with their preoccupation with “American exceptionalism.” I have no idea, however, what “earned American exceptionalism” is.

The response to Christie’s speech among conservatives was apparently quite positive, but since when does the right believe that American exceptionalism is anything less than self-evident?

I certainly can’t speak for conservatives on this, but my sense is that as far as the right is concerned, the United States has already earned our exceptional status. We did so, the argument goes, over the course of more than two centuries of historic, inspirational greatness.

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.

So why are conservatives silent on Christie’s apparent ideological heresy?