Chris Christie fired blindly with his attack on Republican libertarians. Photographer: Emile Wamsteker/Bloomberg.
Chris Christie fired blindly with his attack on Republican libertarians. Photographer: Emile Wamsteker/Bloomberg.

Famously combative New Jersey Governor Chris Christie came out as a national-security hawk yesterday, but any military expert could tell him that picking a fight without a strategy is a bad idea.

Christie, a Republican, was asked about the rising influence of libertarianism in his party. He could have said any number of things in response. He could have said that he thinks libertarians bring a lot of interesting and important ideas to the table, but sometimes go too far, and that he thinks that fears about the national-security state ordering drone strikes on Americans sitting at cafes are a case in point. He could have said that he understands people’s concerns about the National Security Agency’s monitoring of phone-call data, but that he is persuaded that it is necessary and that existing privacy protections are sufficient.

Instead he issued a blanket attack on libertarianism -- "a very dangerous thought" -- and implied that its adherents are unconcerned about the safety of innocent Americans, without any suggestion that they might be right about anything. Like a drone strike, he came at the question from miles above the ground. Unlike the military, he used no precision targeting. He said nothing at all about any particular controversy over national-security policy.

Libertarians are an important part of the Republican coalition. Republican politicians frequently disagree with libertarians on issues, but a broad-brush attack will understandably anger them. And even Republicans who aren’t down-the-line libertarians share some of their concerns. Representative James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, for example, is a longtime supporter of the Patriot Act. He is, in other words, not a clone of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. But Sensenbrenner also favored the amendment to rein in the NSA that the House narrowly voted down this week. These Republicans can be persuaded to overcome their libertarian instincts on many issues -- but not by being told that they shouldn't have these instincts in the first place.

The Republican Party badly needs a debate over national security and civil liberties, but that debate will be useful only to the extent it gets beyond generalities. And another thing that Republicans need -- at least those who are considering Christie as their presidential standard-bearer in 2016 -- is to see that the man is capable of a little finesse, especially when it comes to managing the Republican coalition.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at National Review. Follow him on Twitter.)