(CNN) – In a rare bipartisan sit-down, former President Bill Clinton on Friday praised Republican Chris Christie–and his famous fleece–for the New Jersey governor’s continued rebuilding efforts following Superstorm Sandy.
“The enduring image most Americans have of you is standing there in your jacket, grieving with your people, working with them and working with the president,” Clinton said to Christie during an onstage discussion at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in Chicago.
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The former president’s acclaim for Christie adds a new twist to the speculation surrounding Christie’s potential 2016 presidential aspirations and those of Clinton’s wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
It’s possible the two could go head-to-head in a few years should they both decide to run and ultimately win their respective party nominations.
Clinton told Bloomberg Television on Friday that he doesn't know what his wife plans to do, "but what it is, I expect to support it." He argued the country's political circles have become too focused on future campaigns.
"Let me make a serious comment. I think it really matters who the president is. I think these elections are important, but I think that only fixating on politics all the time gives us a form of national attention deficit disorder," he said.
Christie and the former president kept the focus on policy Friday night, making no mention-not even a joke-about 2016.
The scene played out as an intriguing dynamic, especially since the governor–who's up for re-election this year–had skipped out on a major conservative gathering in Washington to attend the Chicago event.
Clinton invited Christie to discuss ways the government can better prevent cataclysmic damage from natural disasters.
Sandy, which slammed into the Jersey Shore last October, left the state bruised and shattered with $39 billion in damage. More than 100 people died across several states.
Christie drew sharp criticism from his own party for putting aside politics as he stood side-by-side with President Barack Obama, who was up for re-election in mere days, when the president traveled to New Jersey to survey the destruction.
Despite their political disagreements, Christie and Obama have maintained that relationship, and Christie again openly embraced the president’s visit to the shore last month.
“You got both praise and damnation for ignoring the political differences that you had then - and still have with the president and all of us who are in the other party - to do something that was really important,” Clinton said.
Consistent with Christie’s independent outspokenness - a trait that has lost him favor among many conservatives in the GOP - Christie fervently made the case Friday that government is needed in times of crises.
No matter which party a person subscribes to, he said, everyone turns to government in an emergency.
“No one in my state was arguing to me that Tuesday October 30th, ‘governor, you should privatize the response to this storm from here on out,’” he said. “This is one of those things that, regardless of where you fall on the ideological spectrum, you would agree that this is government’s responsibility.”
In their 40-minute talk, the two exchanged ideas on how to invest now to prevent higher damage costs in the future. And though they kept the conversation serious, the two had a couple of light moments.
“If you could make federal policy just by fiat, how would you-" Clinton said.
“How great would that be?” Christie jokingly interrupted.
“Looks better to me all the time,” Clinton replied, smiling.
When introducing Christie, Clinton began with a story about how he first got to know the governor.
The two used to have seats close to each other at the Big East Men’s Basketball Tournament.
“I remember the first time I plopped down and started talking to him, I thought this was going to wreck this guy's career,” Clinton joked. “Maybe he can get elected in New Jersey but everybody else will say, ‘Oh my God. He's consorting with a leper.’”
“And he never blinked,” Clinton added. “As far as he was concerned, as long as I could talk about basketball it was alright with him.”