Back in early 2015 when ISIS was just beginning to fully emerge as the stuff of American nightmares, proto-presidential candidate Scott Walker got himself into hot water by suggesting that his success in battling unions in Wisconsin showed he’d be tough enough to deal with terrorists. Aside from the insinuated parallel between murderous terrorists and American working people trying to preserve long-standing collective bargaining rights, Walker’s rap also involved the claim that “toughness” in any capacity somehow translated into expertise in fighting terrorism. It was the first of many mistakes that led to Walker’s retirement from the 2016 race.
Now that terrorism has become a central issue in the GOP nomination contest, another famous tough guy, Chris Christie, is attempting something similar to Walker’s gambit, by seeking to make the combative reputation he earned by fighting criminals, corrupt pols, and public employees into prima facie evidence he’d be a fine terrorist-fighting president. There’s a key distinction between Christie’s case and Walker’s, of course, that goes beyond the difference between the former’s loud Jersey bluster and the latter’s hammer-headed midwestern stolidity. Christie was a federal prosecutor in a state near New York in the months and years after 9/11. Thanks to some revisionist history, he’s recasting his prosecutorial career as one long fight against terrorism. As he said in the December 15 GOP debate:
Terrorism, radical jihadist terror, is not theoretical to me. It’s real. And for seven years, I spent my life protecting our country against another one of those attacks.
You won’t have to worry when I’m president of the United States whether that can be done, because I’ve already done it. I want the chance to do it again to protect you, your children, and your families. If you give me the chance and give me your vote, I will protect America from the wars that are being brought to our doorstep.
But as Olivia Nuzzi explains in a Daily Beast column, this isn’t the take on his prosecutorial career that Christie himself — or Christie watchers — has presented in the past, most notably when he ran for governor in 2009. Until it suddenly became convenient to his presidential campaign to put a different spin on it, Christie the prosecutor was focused like a laser on fighting crime and corruption:
Six years ago, Christie the Gubernatorial Candidate was telling a different story about his time as the U.S. Attorney: that he had fought public corruption and protected New Jersey’s residents from crooked politicians. The swamp had seemed beyond repair before he got in, but he’d managed to lock up 130 public officials, more than one per month, during his tenure.
He never said much—or anything, really—about terror …
Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, told me, “From day one, the U.S. Attorney’s office under Chris Christie was all about anti-corruption—which actually surprised a lot of us in New Jersey, considering what had just happened in lower Manhattan right before he became U.S. Attorney.”
“It’s definitely a rebranding,” he said. “There’s nobody on the ground here in New Jersey who remembers any emphasis on his anti-terrorism efforts in terms of what he was trying to do as U.S. Attorney.”
Nuzzi goes on to examine the two major terrorism cases brought by Christie that his campaign now likes to talk about, and suggests both were borderline entrapment incidents pretty remote from any real war on terror.
Most tellingly, even some of Christie’s staunchest supporters seem to have been slow to get with the re-branding program. The New Hampshire Union Leader, whose recent endorsement has probably done more to make Christie a viable candidate than anything he’s said or done, characterized him this way:
Chris Christie is a solid, pro-life conservative who has managed to govern in liberal New Jersey, face down the big public unions, and win a second term. Gov. Christie can work across the aisle, but he won’t get rolled by the bureaucrats. We don’t need as President some well-meaning person from the private sector who has no public experience.
Only then did the puff piece mention that Christie had “prosecuted terrorists and dealt admirably with natural disasters.” This doesn’t sound like the man who for seven years “spent my life protecting our country against another one of those attacks.”
In the end, Christie, just like Walker, is relying on his image as a tough guy to buttress this new idea that he’s a brilliant terrorist-hunter who can make Americans feel all warm and secure. Unfortunately, beating up on public employees may serve as soft porn for conservative voters in the heartland who view coastal blue states like New Jersey as enemy territory, but it doesn’t make you a national-security asset.