Choosing a side in his party’s ideological battle, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie attacked libertarian ideas on national security exemplified by U.S. Senator Rand Paul, a possible opponent in the 2016 presidential primary.
“I just want us to be really cautious of this strain of libertarianism that is going through both parties right now and making big headlines,” Christie, 50, said at a Republican governor’s roundtable yesterday in Aspen, Colorado. “I think it is a very dangerous thought.”
The comments gave an early glimpse of how Christie might position himself in what’s likely to be a crowded Republican primary in three years. The governor, who is enjoying high approval ratings from his response to Hurricane Sandy as he seeks a second term, has drawn criticism from some national Republicans for praising President Barack Obama’s help after the storm and scolding party members in Congress for aid delays.
“Sometimes there’s a mixture between the governor’s politics and his gut reaction,” said Patrick Murray, director of the West Long Branch, New Jersey-based Monmouth University Polling Institute. “In that response you saw both,” he added. “We saw the same thing with his embrace of President Obama after Hurricane Sandy.”
Christie’s comments come as lawmakers in Washington from both parties champion civil liberties and privacy in a debate over anti-terrorism policies. Libertarianism is a political philosophy whose proponents advocate for little or no government involvement in peoples’ lives.
U.S. lawmakers angry about domestic telephone record-collection this week lost an effort to curtail funding for the intelligence-gathering tools revealed by fugitive U.S. security contractor Edward Snowden. On a 205-217 vote, the House rejected an amendment by Representative Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican, that would have limited the National Security Agency’s ability to collect phone records.
When asked yesterday if he was referring to Paul, Christie said: “You can name any number of people who engage in” the libertarian debates and “and he’s one of them.”
Paul, a Kentucky Republican who has accused the Obama administration of trampling civil liberties, responded to Christie on his Twitter account: “Christie worries about the dangers of freedom,” the senator wrote. “I worry about the danger of losing that freedom. Spying without warrants is unconstitutional.”
Christie, on stage in Aspen with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Indiana Governor Mike Pence, denounced what he called “esoteric debates” about national security.
“We as a country need to decide, do we have amnesia?” he said, adding that Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama put in place stringent security policies after Sept. 11, 2001, and didn’t change it because “it works.”
As a former U.S. prosecutor appointed by Bush on Sept. 10, 2001, Christie said he was particularly close to New Jersey families affected by the terrorist attacks, with the state claiming the second-highest total death toll.
“I love all these esoteric debates people are getting in,” he said. “I want them to come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and the orphans and have that conversation and they won’t, that’s a tough conversation to have.”
Christie seized on Paul as “a serious symbol,” rather than a looming 2016 challenger, representing a party faction whose views on national security run counter to Christie’s experience as a metropolitan New York City resident and federal prosecutor after the 2001 attacks, said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
“Part of his portfolio is he’s a Republican willing to take on the Republican establishment,” Zelizer said by phone. “Because he’s from the tri-state area, he also sent a clear message that he is not going with the libertarian wing of the Republican party on security, and hands-off government. He’s going to be a hawk.”
Christie, who lives in the New York City suburb of Mendham Township, has spoken about friends of his four children who lost parents in the World Trade Center attack. He’s also recounted his anxiety over the whereabouts that morning of his wife, Mary Pat Christie, a Wall Street bond trader who was two blocks from where the hijacked aircraft struck, and who couldn’t contact her family to tell them she was safe until many hours later.
Charlie Cook, founder of the Cook Political Report, a Washington-based nonpartisan newsletter on national personalities and issues, said it was “extremely cynical” to believe that Christie’s words in Aspen were driven purely by ambition for national office.
“There is no doubt in my mind that as a tough former U.S. attorney, particularly one becoming a prosecutor in New Jersey immediately after 9/11, Christie strongly believes what he says, and sees this as a dangerous turn on the part of many in his party,” Cook said in an e-mail. “At the same time, it’s not necessarily bad politics, either.”
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