WASHINGTON — It’s rare that you can look at your television screen and see not only what is happening but also what might have been. Chris Christie’s inaugural address on Tuesday was at once a masterful summary of the best thinking among Republicans about where their party needs to move and a compendium of proclamations that now carry unfortunate double meanings.
The New Jersey governor gave the speech he would have given had there been no George Washington Bridge scandal and no allegations about the use of Superstorm Sandy relief money to pressure a local official on a development project.
You can’t blame him for sticking to the old script. He now has to live his public life on two levels. And Christie’s speech made an important contribution: The tough former prosecutor denounced our dysfunctional, counterproductive approach to the drug problem.
“We will end the failed war on drugs that believes that incarceration is the cure of every ill caused by drug abuse,” Christie declared. “We will make drug treatment available to as many of our nonviolent offenders as we can, and we will partner with our citizens to create a society that understands this simple truth — every life has value and no life is disposable.”
Forget the scandals for a moment: Christie here is speaking for an expanding consensus that (forgive me) bridges left and right, liberals and libertarians, about the foolishness of filling our prisons with those who are the victims of their own crimes. Pushing this cause along could be Christie’s good deed.
But like everything else in the speech, this passage also had a political purpose. Offering a dash of libertarianism, which appeals to a key subset of the Republican primary electorate, with a soupçon of compassion is just what the consultant gods would order up. And that’s the sort of balance Christie struck throughout.
For the Tea Party ideologues, Christie dutifully mocked “the power of almighty government to fix any problem, real or imagined.” He fired a shot across the Hudson River, aimed perhaps at Bill de Blasio, New York City’s populist mayor. “Let’s be different than our neighbors,” he said. “Let’s put more money in the pockets of our middle class by not taking it out of their pockets in the first place.”
And even Rand Paul couldn’t do better than this: “I do not believe that New Jerseyans want a bigger, more expensive government that penalizes success and then gives the pittance left to a few in the name of income equity. What New Jerseyans want is an unfettered opportunity to succeed in the way that they define success.”
But the ideology came draped in the finery of anti-partisan, anti-gridlock fashion, finished off with a flourish to a resurgent, caring brand of conservatism.