Politics & Policy

Christie Sees Opening in Primary Race as National Security Takes Center Stage

(Scott Olson/Getty)

Last Friday’s massacre of 129 innocent Parisians by Islamic terrorists is driving a political transformation in Europe. Could it cause a similar transformation in the U.S.?

Chris Christie is counting on it. The New Jersey governor was booted from the main debate stage in Milwaukee last week just as he was gaining momentum and getting a second look from voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. Now, he’s hoping to ride anxiety over the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism to a political resurgence of his own: With President Obama’s Middle East strategy under fire and state governors and Republicans at every level of government resisting plans to welcome Syrian refugees, he sees a window of opportunity for a law-and-order conservative to gain traction as the political silly season comes to an end.

As a former U.S. attorney in a post-9/11 world, Christie claims his real-world experience battling terrorism makes him the adult in a field dominated by national-security neophytes. In a letter sent to President Obama on Tuesday, he wrote that the government’s Syrian refugee resettlement program “exposes our fellow Americans to unacceptable peril.” He has ordered New Jersey officials not to take part in it.

“I think what the American people are going to look for now . . . is [someone] who has been tested, and is ready, and is experienced to be able to protect the homeland,” Christie tells National Review in a wide-ranging interview on Tuesday. “This is a time when they’re going to really turn to people with that kind of experience, and I’m the guy on the stage who has that experience.”

Christie has long touted his national-security expertise, and it’s an argument that is sure to have added resonance in the wake of the Paris massacre.

In campaign speeches and on the debate stage, Christie has long touted his national-security expertise, and it’s an argument that is sure to have added resonance in the wake of the Paris massacre. He reminds voters that he found out he would be nominated as New Jersey’s U.S. attorney just one day before the 9/11 attacks. And he cites his two successful terrorism prosecutions — of an Indian-born Muslim for smuggling an anti-aircraft missile into the U.S. in 2003, and of six Muslim immigrants for plotting to mow down U.S. soldiers at Fort Dix in 2007 — as bona fides, claiming his team disrupted additional attacks.

Thrust into a world dominated by the Patriot Act and foreign counterintelligence, Christie says he was on the front end of a “paradigm shift” in law enforcement. As U.S. attorney, he had the final say on when to open an investigation, request a wiretap, and ultimately move on a terror suspect. “Those are all very difficult decisions, and very nuanced decisions,” he says. “And you learn a lot from every one of those decisions you make.”

Christie aggressively defended the surveillance tools he used as a prosecutor well before he began his presidential campaign. When the Edward Snowden leaks sent the intelligence community reeling in 2013, the New Jersey governor launched a broadside against the libertarian wing of his party, taking particular aim at Kentucky senator Rand Paul. In a memorable performance at the first GOP debate in August, Christie sparred with Paul over the necessity of the NSA’s phone-record collection, invoking 9/11 to justify his continued support for the program.

“This is why I’ve been so opposed to the NSA changes that were made, so opposed to the demoralizing of our intelligence community,” Christie says on Tuesday. “Because what happened in France, in my view, is clearly an indication of weak intelligence.”

‘The fact of the matter is that Senator Rubio’s never had to make a decision about anything regarding national security,’ Christie says.

He’s quick to claim that his opponents lack that experience, and reserves particular scorn for Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees and perhaps Christie’s chief rival in New Hampshire, the early state on which the governor’s campaign has invested heavily. Polling averages show Christie trailing Rubio by four points in the Granite State.

“The fact of the matter is that Senator Rubio’s never had to make a decision about anything regarding national security,” Christie says. “He sits and he gets briefings, and eventually he may get to vote on some things. But to have to execute — and be responsible for what happens when you execute — on those decisions is significantly different, and much more like the presidency, than sitting and discussing this in some subcommittee in the Senate basement.”

Though Christie doesn’t disagree with Rubio’s warning that the Paris attacks are the harbinger of a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West, he suggests Rubio is all talk. “‘Clash of civilizations’ is a very dramatic way to put it, and Marco’s very good at that, to say things very dramatically,” he says.

#share#Still, Christie saves his toughest shots for Democrats. Hillary Clinton’s failure to label “radical Islam” our enemy in her most recent debate, he says, “is another example of her naiveté and political correctness. Neither one are helpful in defeating the enemy we have.”

He condemns President Obama’s ISIS strategy, saying the White House has undermined American credibility in the region by cozying up to Iran and allowing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to remain in power. To turn things around, Christie believes a no-fly zone must be imposed, airstrikes must be stepped up, and America’s Sunni Arab allies must be reassured that the U.S. is not in Iran’s corner. Unlike some other Republicans, he shies away from committing thousands of American ground troops to the region. “We can’t be seen as an occupying force,” he says. “That doesn’t help us in the Middle East.”

RELATED: Christie’s Early-State Momentum Threatened by Debate Relegation

And on denying entrance to Syrian refugees — even five-year-old orphans — Christie is unrepentant. “This administration said 24 hours before the Paris attack that ISIS was contained,” he notes, explaining that after at least one Paris attacker came into Europe as a Syrian migrant, it is impossible to trust the federal government to screen out security risks. He put his money where his mouth is on Tuesday, informing President Obama that New Jersey officials would not cooperate with any efforts to resettle Syrian refugees in the state.

#related#A drawn-out federal investigation into the Christie administration’s vindictive closure of the George Washington Bridge in 2013 has held down the governor’s popularity, both in New Jersey and nationally, since the indictments of three former aides were announced in May. But if newfound fears over Islamic terror combine with Christie’s hard-nosed pitch to refocus voters and buoy his national numbers, Christie may find himself back on the main-debate stage come December. If the same thing happens in New Hampshire, the struggling New Jersey governor may well regain his footing and go on to wage a competitive primary.

Christie, however, claims it’s never been about the polls. “I’ve been talking about this message since I entered the race,” he says. “What’s happening is that, because of the actions around the world, my comments over the last couple of months have increasing relevance to the public.

“The effect that may or may not have on the polls, I have absolutely no idea,” he says. Surely he is hoping it’s a positive one.  

— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.

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