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Chris Christie Video Shows That GOP Empathy Is Real -- And Limited

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 10/11/2015 Jonathan Cohn
ATHENA IMAGE © Steve Pope via Getty Images ATHENA IMAGE

The famous video of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talking about addiction is a sign of how much Republican Party attitudes toward vulnerable people have changed.

It’s also a reminder of how much those attitudes have stayed the same.

If you follow politics, you probably have seen or heard about Christie’s appearance at a New Hampshire tavern late last month, where he was campaigning for the GOP presidential nomination. In response to a question about illegal drug use, Christie said society should help addicts, not demonize them. To make his point, he talked movingly about two people in his life -- his mother, who couldn’t stop smoking even though she knew it was killing her, and a law school friend, who became addicted to painkillers after an injury and eventually took his own life.

Nobody questions trying to treat smokers like his mother, Christie explained. So why should anybody question trying to treat people with different kinds of addictions? “We have to stop judging and start giving them the tools they need to get better,” Christie said.

The Huffington Post posted footage of the soliloquy, which runs about six minutes. The video went viral about a week ago and, since that time, nearly 8 million people have watched it online. It’s likely that millions more have seen excerpts on television.

The raw authenticity of the moment has quite obviously struck a chord. But it’s likely that the message has, too.

Politicians know this. Not so long ago, candidates for office wooed voters by promising severe, mandatory sentences for illegal drug use. Now, they boast about their compassion toward addicts -- even in the Republican primary, where voters have long favored tougher, less-forgiving approaches to crime.

One reason for the transformation is practical. Filling jails with nonviolent offenders has turned out to be very expensive .

The other reason is personal. Large numbers of Americans have seen first hand how addiction strikes -- and, more important, they have seen who it strikes. They see neighbors, friends, and family struggling. And while they don’t hold these addicts blameless, they also understand that many people struggling with drugs are victims of bad luck -- the kind of misfortune that, as Christie put it, “could happen to anyone.”

“There but for the grace of God, go I,” Christie said.

Of course, Christie could have used those same sentences to describe other people. He could have been talking about the unemployed or the uninsured, people who fell behind on mortgage payments or people who have dropped out of school. The Americans experiencing those kinds of misfortune are just like the addicts Christie discussed so poignantly in that video -- neither wholly blameless nor wholly responsible for their fates.

Look into the ranks of the jobless and you’ll find all kinds of people -- some who frittered away good positions because they didn’t work hard, some who got pink slips because their employers shifted operations overseas, and plenty whose circumstances are somewhere in between those extremes. Spend time in a community medical clinic and you’ll find people who opted not to buy health insurance that they could have afforded -- or put off medical care when they had a chance to get it. Alongside them, you’ll see people unable to get coverage because it was too expensive or unavailable to them because of pre-existing medical conditions. 

But you rarely hear Republicans invoke Christie's forgiving, empathetic language when describing these people. On the contrary, for several decades, the GOP’s rhetoric has tilted in the other direction, ostracizing the poor, the downtrodden, and the marginalized. That’s how it was in 1980, when Ronald Reagan was attacking “welfare queens,” and that’s how it was in 2012, when Mitt Romney was bemoaning the “47 percent” of Americans on some kind of federal assistance.

And these aren't just slogans. Republicans have fought repeatedly to limit government programs, whether by limiting eligibility for food stamps and housing vouchers or by rolling back Obamacare. One big reason for that is the perception, which Republican leaders and voters share, that the poor people who benefit from these programs are “takers” instead of “makers” -- and that they don’t deserve so much “free stuff.”

To be clear, Reagan and Romney and the other Republicans also had more practical concerns about the efficacy of the welfare state -- like whether providing benefits to the poor discourages them from working, or whether, in a time of constrained budgets, the federal government must simply be more thrifty. But Republicans used to make similar arguments when they justified harsh sentences for drug crimes. They’re relenting now because they know the victims -- because, suddenly, suffering has become personal. They don’t see the other groups of vulnerable people in the same way.

This pattern, of Republicans selectively supporting beneficiaries they know well, is a familiar one. After Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast in 2012, for example, Republicans from other parts of the country tried to block large chunks of federal aid because, they said, it would be fiscally irresponsible. But when floods hit Texas, Sen.  Ted Cruz (R-Texas) , who helped lead the fight against Sandy aid, sought federal assistance for his constituents. Sen.  Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) , who also opposed Sandy relief, begged for help when his home state of South Carolina needed it.

It’s the same underlying dynamic that famously drove Rob Portman , the Republican senator from Ohio, to change his views on same-sex marriage. Like most conservatives, Portman had opposed it -- until his son came out of the closet. “It allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that's of a dad who loves his son a lot,” Portman said at the time.

Portman's change of heart on same-sex marriage, like Christie's determination to help addicts, is a sign of empathy. But that empathy clearly has limits. It stops when the misfortune or marginalization is no longer something these conservative politicians can understand personally.

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