Gov. Chris Christie fired what sounded like a shot against the early front runner for the 2016 Republican nomination last week:
“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.
There’s some value in Christie’s points, but they get lost in incendiary rhetoric. Invoking September 11, 2001 and calling those with reservations about government overreach “dangerous” is similar to calling the Obama Administration “socialist” – the words are so far over the top that they no longer register with the average voter.
Those concerned with domestic spying and data mining programs rail against politicians who frame a choice between security and privacy. Christie would have been smarter to echo such”false choice” rhetoric. “There needn’t be a false choice between security and privacy – we can and must have aggressive, effective programs that smoke out terrorists that don’t violate our rights,” he might have said. (Though, come to think of it, he probably shouldn’t use the word “needn’t.” He’s got speechwriters for that, though.)
This type of language is much more inclusive, and that’s what Christie will need to get his 2016 efforts on track. Sen. Rand Paul is ahead in the polls because people support his positions; a candidate who calls those positions “dangerous” will find it hard to win their support – even if he wins the nomination.
Christie has a good example just to his north, in the city for which his state is an oversize suburb. Rudy Giuliani’s speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention argued for many specific policies that Paul would probably not agree with. Yet the arguments were framed by a theme captured in one stand-out phrase: “Our party’s great contribution is to expand freedom.” Giuliani was never a conservative darling, but with this line he at least let on that he understood where conservatives were coming from.
Giuliani did not simply argue that he was right while the other side was wrong; he argued that the other side should agree with him because his solutions offered the best chance to advance their goals. It’s similar to the way Paul Ryan tried to frame entitlement reform as a way to preserve the safety net.
And it’s the way a candidate like Christie – who will , realistically, have difficulty proving conservative bona fides to many primary voters – will have to start talking if he wants to win the party’s nomination and the White House.