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What the Chris Christie-Rand Paul Ruckus Really Means

The political press is abuzz over what sure looks like one of the first clashes of the Republican Party's 2016 primary season. At a Republican governors forum in Aspen, Colo., New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took a characteristically unsubtle shot at libertarian Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's noisy opposition to elements of the post-9/11 national security state:

This strain of libertarianism that’s going through parties right now and making big headlines I think is a very dangerous thought. You can name any number of people and (Paul is) one of them...These esoteric, intellectual debates — I want them to come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and the orphans and have that conversation. And they won’t, because that’s a much tougher conversation to have...The next attack that comes, that kills thousands of Americans as a result, people are going to be looking back on the people having this intellectual debate and wondering whether they put …(trails off)

Paul's side fired right back with a statement to Politico: “If Gov. Christie believes the constitutional rights and the privacy of all Americans is ‘esoteric’, he either needs a new dictionary, or he needs to talk to more Americans, because a great number of them are concerned about the dramatic overreach of our government in recent years. Defending America and fighting terrorism is the concern of all Americans, especially Sen. Paul. But it can and must be done in keeping with our Constitution and while protecting the freedoms that make America exceptional.”

This is all fun and good for media already desperate for the 2016 race to begin and eager to belabor the glaring rifts within the GOP on any number of issues. But what it shouldn't be is in the least surprising. We know where Paul stands on this front. And we should have realized that this is where Christie stands as well: as a standard-issue national security hawk. No, we haven't gotten to see much of it yet since Christie's job as governor has been more concerned with cutting pensions than firing drones.

But the signs were all there. First of all, Christie is by nature and training a lawman. Second, he is not just a federal prosecutor but one who has been immersed in the Global War on Terrorism by virtue of sitting in New Jersey, which was not only home of several hundred 9/11 victims but also the temporary home of several of the 9/11 attackers and the origin of one of the hijacked planes. In this regard, it’s hard to overstate the similarity with Rudy Giuliani, who like Christie combines a tough-on-terror stance with a cosmopolitan insistence that this need not be construed as bias against the many Muslims in greater New York – recall Christie’s virtuosic rant against conservatives who objected to his nomination of a Muslim lawyer for  a Superior Court judgeship.

Finally, follow the money. Christie’s big backers – the millionaires and billionaires who were urging him to run in 2012 – are from the school of conservatives who are liberal on social issues such as same-sex marriage but take a hard-line orthodoxy on tax-cutting and favor an aggressive security posture at home and abroad. The classic example of this type is Paul Singer, the hedge fund titan who helped lead the push for Christie in 2012 and who, at a 2010 fundraiser, railed on and on about “the Obama administration’s inadequate support for Israel.”

This is the realm from which Christie hails. It is why it is wrong to simply cast him as a softie moderate because he’s willing to walk on the beach with Barack Obama. On the national security front, Christie is anything but soft, and as the remarks in Aspen reflect, he’s more than willing to play rough with appeals to the emotions. Yes, the debates in Des Moines and Manchester could be fun.

Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him @AlecMacGillis.