Gov. Chris Christie dipped his big toe into the turbulent waters of domestic surveillance a few weeks ago, only to have it gnawed on by fellow Republican Sen. Rand Paul (KY), a leading libertarian and potential presidential candidate in 2016.
Within hours of Christie’s comment that Paul and others like him who oppose the government’s massive data-gathering program were a danger to defending against terrorism, Paul fired back in the kind of sharp tone and demeaning terms Christie usually employs.
Christie’s comments and Paul’s rapid response were seized on by the media and presented in the context of the two men becoming rivals for the Republican presidential nomination.
The governor also drew critical comments at home from Steve Lonegan, soon to be the Republican candidate to fill the unexpired U.S. Senate term of the late Frank Lautenberg, and State Sen. Mike Doherty of Warren County, perhaps the leading conservative voice in the state Legislature.
Christie defended the surveillance program as vital to the security of the nation, ridiculing those who share Paul’s view as engaging in an “esoteric” debate over the government’s role in thwarting terror plots.
Paul pounced on Christie’s “esoteric” characterization, suggesting there is nothing esoteric about adhering to the Constitution and guarding against unwarranted intrusions into the private lives of Americans who do not stand accused or even suspected of any wrongdoing.
Neither man, of course, will convince the other of the validity of his position, and it’s altogether likely that the country has not heard the last of the two debating it. The issue is one of the more divisive in the Congress and will most certainly spill over into the 2016 presidential campaigns no matter who the candidates are.
Christie, by initiating and engaging in the debate, has contributed to the argument posed by New Jersey Democrats that he fully intends to use his second term -- should he win one -- to further his national ambitions at the ultimate expense of New Jersey citizens.
The governor has weighed in on national issues in the past, of course, but his comments have usually been in line with national Republican thinking -- opposition to Obamacare, criticism of the failure to control government spending, and the deficit.
He incurred the wrath of some -- including Paul -- for his praise of the president in responding to the devastation of Hurricane Sandy and for his criticism of House Speaker John Boehner for failing to move more rapidly to approve Federal disaster relief for New Jersey.
In responding to Christie’s criticism of him, Paul took a shot at the governor over the disaster relief issue, mocking his “gimmee, gimmee, gimmee” attitude -- language heard occasionally from Christie in describing legislative Democrats’ approach to the state budget.
After swapping insults over which was greedier with respect to securing Federal funds, both cooled the rhetoric and appeared to put the dispute behind them -- for now.
Should Christie secure a second term -- and, at this point, it appears likely -- his agenda and any legislative recommendations he offers will be viewed in the context of his desire to please national Republican Party leaders in furtherance of his interest in national office.
Fairly or not, his clash with Paul virtually assures such an outcome.
Christie has achieved credibility as a national political figure, polling well in a number of states and emerging as highly competitive in a presidential match up with Hillary Clinton. In some early surveys, Christie is favored over Vice President Joe Biden and other potential Democratic candidates.
His run-in with Paul, however, suggests that while his aggressive and often confrontational style has endeared him to many, there will be significant and serious pushback from those who not only share the Kentucky Senator’s views on domestic surveillance, but also who harbor a mistrust of an eastern, moderate Republican who befriended Obama and boasts of his working relationship with Democrats.
The ferocity of Paul’s response cannot be underestimated or dismissed lightly, demonstrating as it does that Christie, as a contender in 2016, will face the kind of blunt and often demeaning criticisms to which he is unaccustomed.
In New Jersey, Christie is by far the most dominant political figure, consistently driving his political opponents into a corner with his oratory and leaving them sputtering and muttering.
In the overheated environment of a national campaign, Christie will face others whose dominance and rhetorical talents match his. And, as Paul demonstrated rather convincingly, there will be no reluctance to use them.
Christie selected the issue on which to make a stand, believing that his argument would be more authentic and compelling coming from the leader of a state in which the memory of September 11 is still very fresh.
As a rhetorical flamethrower, Paul demonstrated he’s every bit Christie’s equal. And, like Christie, he’s willing to stand in the center of the ring and swap roundhouse rights.
His reaction, though, including his description of Christie’s reference to the 9/11 victims as “sad and cheap” is a jarring reminder that there are larger considerations at work and that he’s eager to make his case that the United States Constitution trumps everything else.