Treatment, not judgement.

Photographer: Steve Pope/Getty Images

Chris Christie's Empathy Goes Viral

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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Governor Chris Christie has finally hit a chord in his struggling quest for the presidency. And he did it by echoing former Democratic Representative Barney Frank's quip that pro-life Republicans "believe that life begins at conception and ends at birth." 

At a campaign stop in October, Christie noted that when his mother, a smoker, got lung cancer, she was treated with a medical arsenal, but someone addicted to drugs receives only blame.

“If it’s heroin or cocaine or alcohol, we say: 'Oh, they decided. They’re getting what they deserved,’” Christie said. “If you’re pro-life that means you have to be pro-life for the whole life, not just the nine months they’re in the womb."

The video of these comments, made in Shooter's Tavern, in Belmont, was posted on the Huffington Post and featured on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" yesterday. It now has more than 3 million viewers on Facebook, which is about 3 million more than noticed anything else Christie has said this campaign.

The governor's concern is sincere. This year, he pushed through a bill in New Jersey that provided more money for rehabilitation of drug addicts. But like his party, he is a little late to the fight for humane treatment of addicts, including the millions incarcerated for long sentences without treatment during the Republicans' lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key phase.

Democrats, for the most part, haven't shied away from the issue: President Barack Obama recently directed $100 million more to treatment programs. It's only with addiction moving from minority residents of the inner city to the white population in the suburbs, exburbs and rural areas that Republicans -- including the arch-conservative Utah Senator Mike Lee -- are now on the case. Like many Americans, the Republican presidential candidates Carly Fiorina, Senator Ted Cruz and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush all have heartbreaking tales of addiction within their families.

Christie isn't the first candidate to talk about treatment rather than incarceration -- his fellow Republican Rand Paul has long decried the disproportionate jailing of black drug offenders. Christie's just the first to get so much attention. It's become a safe topic now that the scourge is devastating the middle class.

On Wednesday, the front page of the New York Times drew attention to a study showing a surprising surge in deaths of middle-aged, white Americans from suicide, substance abuse and liver disease. Almost 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were white. And in New Hampshire, for instance, home of the second presidential nominating contest, there is one death a day from heroin and opiate overdoses. Nationwide, the Center for Disease Controls reports 44 deaths daily from substance abuse.

In New Hampshire, Christie shared the story of a brilliant law school classmate who had everything going for him but became addicted to painkillers after a back injury. He lost his job, his wife and kids and was discovered dead beside an empty vial of Percocet and empty bottle of vodka. 

This may be the moment when addiction jumps from being the sole preserve of squishy soft-on-crime Democrats and becomes a theme for Republicans, too. Who knows? It could even divert attention from Donald Trump.

Seldom is a bandwagon so worthy of being jumped on. If Christie's numbers go up, watch as his rivals scramble to get on board.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net