Chris Christie's Attack on the Civil-Liberties Wing of the GOP

The New Jersey governor exploited the 9/11 dead to argue that concerns about the NSA and the national-security state are "esoteric."
chris christie full reuters.jpg

Before today, I expected that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie would position himself as a security-state moderate in the 2016 Republican primary, acknowledging that the Rand Paul wing of the party has legitimate concerns, picking a couple fights with the GOP's John Bolton wing, and making it clear to establishment types that he wouldn't radically challenge the status quo. That would be smart politics.

There are a lot of Republicans who think Rand Paul makes some good points, but aren't yet ready to embrace his whole critique of the national-security state. Who else is going after those votes? But now it seems clear that Christie will adopt the neoconservative line on national security, embracing the most radical actions of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Speaking at the Aspen Institute on Thursday, Christie belittled the libertarian wing of his party for its take on NSA spying. "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," he said.

Aaron Blake of the Washington Post offers an account of what came next:

Asked whether he includes Paul -- a fellow potential 2016 presidential candidate -- in his criticism, Christie didn't back down. "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." Christie acknowledged that there will always be mistakes when it comes to national security and protecting privacy, but said Americans need to stay focused on what's at stake.

He dismissed some of the current privacy/national security debates as "esoteric."

"I think what we as a country have to decide is: Do we have amnesia? Because I don't," he said. "And I remember what we felt like on Sept. 12, 2001."  Christie also praised the national security strategies of both President Obama and George W. Bush. "I want to say that I think both the way President Bush conducted himself and the way President Obama has conducted himself in the main on those types of decisions hasn't been different because they were right and because we haven't had another one of those attacks that cost thousands and thousands of lives," Christie said.

Personally, I'd strongly prefer to leave the widows and orphans of all atrocities out of politics, because it is so unseemly when politicians opportunistically exploit them to compensate for the power their positions lack on the merits. But if a demagogue forced me to argue in front of them?

Here's what I'd say: 

I'm truly sorry for your loss. I know the family members of people who died on 9/11 have a wide range of ideas about how America ought to deal with the threat of future terrorism. I won't presume anything about you except that you hate terrorism. So do I. It injures and kills innocents. And it attempts to use successful murders to terrorize even the people who aren't killed. Terrorists frighten societies into compromising their values in ways they never would but for terrorism.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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