Before we go any further, watch a clip of Christie's spat with Paul here:
The most notable moment occurs about a minute and a half into the video, when Christie doesn't merely defend the NSA's powers, he argues for their expansion.
"I will make no apologies ever for protecting the lives and safety of the American people," said Christie. "We have to give more tools to our folks to be able to do that, not fewer, and then trust those people and oversee them to do it the right way."
That line drew a round of applause from the audience Thursday. But Christie might not have the rest of the electorate on his side. The latest survey on the issue by the Pew Research Center, in May, finds that 54 percent of Americans disapprove of the government collection of communications data. That figure actually rises to 56 percent among Republicans and 57 percent among independents.
Of course, different polling questions can produce different results. Fifty-six percent of Americans believe the NSA phone-records program is "acceptable," according to a Pew-Washington Post survey from January. (Forty-one percent said it was unacceptable.) And in June, 61 percent of Americans told CNN that the Patriot Act, the law the government claims authorizes the bulk collection, should be renewed. (Recall that a federal appeals court has disagreed with the government, saying the law doesn't authorize the program.)
These numbers portray an electorate that's pretty tolerant of the NSA, despite being ambivalent about its phone-records program specifically. If that's true, that's good news for Christie.
But now let's add some technological context. As the Internet becomes more central to the way we work and play, electronic communications have risen to equal, if not exceed, traditional phone calls in importance. And when you ask Americans how they feel about the government spying on digital media, too — well, let's just say they aren't very happy about it.
"Across the board, there is a universal lack of confidence among adults in the security of everyday communications channels — particularly when it comes to the use of online tools," a Pew study on privacy found last November. "Americans’ lack of confidence in core communications channels tracks closely with how much they have heard about government surveillance programs."
Among the technologies studied? Landline calls, cellphone calls, text messaging, e-mail, instant messages and social media. Only with landlines did more than 10 percent of Americans feel "very secure."
Eighty percent of respondents in the survey said Americans should be concerned about "government monitoring of phone calls and Internet communications," according to Pew.
These figures suggest that Americans are even more skittish about online surveillance than they are about telephone records. If Christie is arguing for giving the agency wider latitude, he may very quickly run into trouble with voters on Internet privacy, even if they feel apathetic or indifferent about monitoring phone-call metadata.
Now, Christie's argument is that if you implement these programs in the right way, you can avoid many of the privacy intrusions Americans are worried about. But by his own admission Thursday, Christie, in his capacity as U.S. attorney from 2002 to 2008, may have been involved with the NSA spying program as it actually existed, notes the independent security journalist Marcy Wheeler.
If Christie didn't intervene then to stop what many Americans regard as a violation of their civil liberties, that suggests that the governor has very different ideas about privacy than the average citizen.