During a panel discussion in Colorado last night, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was dismissive of efforts to curtail the National Security Agency's surveillance systems. Christie excoriated the "strain of libertarianism that’s going through both parties," suggesting that people like Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky explain their positions to families of September 11 victims. Christie's reputation as a small-government, do-your-own-thing maverick apparently has a sharply-drawn boundary he won't cross: undermining the authoritarian weight of the United States government.
When Christie made his statements, he was in pretty conservative company. The discussion, hosted by the Republican Governors Association, included several other men who fit that description: Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Mike Pence of Indiana. Each of the four has at some point been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, at widely varying levels of plausibility. The Washington Post reported on Christie's comments.
“As a former prosecutor who was appointed by President George W. Bush on Sept. 10, 2001, I just want us to be really cautious, because this strain of libertarianism that’s going through both parties right now and making big headlines, I think, is a very dangerous thought,” Christie said. …
“You can name any one of them that’s engaged in this,” he said. “I want them to come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and the orphans and have that conversation. … I’m very nervous about the direction this is moving in.”
The "them" in that statement refers to those like Paul who have been outspoken in opposition to the surveillance. Christie later called such concerns "esoteric," prompting a direct response from the senator's office, as reported by The Times.
“If Governor Christie believes the constitutional rights and the privacy of all Americans is ‘esoteric,’ he either needs a new dictionary or he needs to talk to more Americans, because a great number of them are concerned about the dramatic overreach of our government in recent years,” a senior adviser to Mr. Paul said.
(Politico was, of course, quick to pick up on the contentious aspect of the conversation: "Chris Christie: Rand Paul 'Dangerous'." 2016 first; policy second.)
The Times also noted that Christie again praised the president in his comments. “President Obama has done nothing to change the policies of the Bush administration in the war on terrorism. And I mean practically nothing,” the paper reports his saying. “And you know why? Cause they work.” None of the other Republican governors were similarly effusive.
It's reminiscent of Christie's comments in response to his joining the president for a tour of New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy last year — only a few days before the presidential election. NJ.com reported what he said at the time:
"I’m aware of all the atmospherics," he said. "I’m not in a coma. But the fact is I don’t care. There will be some folks who will criticize me for complimenting him. Well you know, I speak the truth. That’s what I do. I say what I feel and what I believe. And I’m just doing the same thing with the president of the United States."
At the time, Christie's comments seemed generally baffling. But the answer may be simple: Obama is the president of the United States, and the president of the United States deserves respect. Christie's description of the "strain of libertarianism" — lowercase L — running through both parties as dangerous is hard to read as anything but dismissive. On this issue, as in the aftermath of the storm, the role of the government trumps political opposition.
And, as with his embrace of Obama after the storm, Christie's boundary here opens him to easy critique. The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf provides an easy rebuttal of the "what would you tell the widows" argument; Paul's office, in reminding Christie that fighting terrorism "can and must be done in keeping with our Constitution" (again according to The Times) provides a simple response to the danger of the senator's "strain of libertarianism."
Chris Christie "says what he feels and what he believes." And in the classical Republican tradition, Christie apparently believes in deference to the government's national security efforts. How that plays politically, is, as usual for Christie, secondary.