I want to like Chris Christie, but his attack on “libertarians” who oppose the NSA’s metadata collection program missed the mark. You can make a reasonable case for the value and reasonableness of the program, but dismissing any privacy concerns as “esoteric” and implying that any questioning of the activities of the intelligence agencies is disrespecting “the widows and the orphans” of 9/11 victims just makes him come across like a demagogue and bully. It isn’t an effective response to the Rand Paul approach to internal and collective security – and that’s too bad.
Rand Paul is different from his dad. Ron Paul was easy to marginalize as a crank. Ron Paul was more interested in proving that his foreign policy views formed a seamless ideological garment than in winning over the median voter. He could be baited into arguing against every American military operation between V-J Day and 9/11, and for the Confederate position in the Civil War.
For all that, Ron Paul was making arguments. It didn’t matter much with older Republican voters. The older Republican voters had developed pro-collective security prior commitments. Paul’s arguments sounded like he would have left the US alone in a world dominated by communist states. That wasn’t what Paul sounded like to many younger (even right-leaning younger) voters. The younger voters had no memory of the Cold War and not much of a general commitment to collective security arrangements. They wanted arguments on a case-by-case basis. Ron Paul’s Republican opponents were not especially good at providing those arguments for the uncommitted (as opposed to mobilizing a pre-existing base), and Ron Paul, for all his many flaws, gained some ground. But there was a ceiling to his support.
Rand Paul is a more useful and a potentially more dangerous figure. He probably isn’t going to let himself get suckered into arguing about the wisdom of the Grenada invasion. He probably won’t give people the idea that he thinks we would be better off if Saddam Hussein reigned not only in Baghdad, but also in Kuwait City and Riyadh.
Unlike his dad, Rand Paul picks his fights and pitches his arguments to the average voter. People of good will can be undecided about whether the collection of metadata involves potential for abuse that outweighs any likely gain in disrupting terrorist groups. Telling them that they would not have their concerns (or any concerns) if they met with the families of 9/11 victims is obnoxious.
This is all the more worrying because I suspect that Rand Paul is much more radical than he lets on. For the moment, Rand Paul is confining himself to prudential arguments on behalf of particular policies. Sloppy, overheated condemnations strengthen Rand Paul’s position. They make him look like the calm, reasonable, thoughtful guy and his opponents like the rigid ideologues. Christie has the chance to offer a prudent collective security-oriented politics. It is early, but he is not off to a good start.