Commentary Magazine


Topic: Rand Paul

Christie’s Rivals Should Pipe Down

It is to be expected that those who are likely to oppose Chris Christie for the 2016 presidential nomination are not joining in the chorus of hosannas for the New Jersey governor after his landslide reelection on Tuesday. But the transparent nature of the carping being thrown in his direction by some of them is not doing them or their future prospects much good. As Rand Paul, his father Ron, and Marco Rubio proved, sometimes you’re better off not trying to rain on the other guy’s parade even if every fiber of your being is impelling you to do so.

Among the top political viral videos from yesterday was Senator Paul’s rant aimed at Christie during a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee meeting. Picking up the gauntlet thrown down a year ago by Christie about conservatives stalling a Hurricane Sandy relief bill, Paul groused about some of the aid money being spent on tourism ads encouraging people to visit the Jersey Shore in the summer after the disaster. While Paul tried to make an issue about federal aid being spent on ads, his real problem was the fact that the ads featured an appearance by somebody “running for office” (named Chris Christie) and went on to complain about this being a “conflict of interest.” While he might have had a small point, it was lost amid his obvious ill humor at anything that might have done his potential rival a spot of good.

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It is to be expected that those who are likely to oppose Chris Christie for the 2016 presidential nomination are not joining in the chorus of hosannas for the New Jersey governor after his landslide reelection on Tuesday. But the transparent nature of the carping being thrown in his direction by some of them is not doing them or their future prospects much good. As Rand Paul, his father Ron, and Marco Rubio proved, sometimes you’re better off not trying to rain on the other guy’s parade even if every fiber of your being is impelling you to do so.

Among the top political viral videos from yesterday was Senator Paul’s rant aimed at Christie during a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee meeting. Picking up the gauntlet thrown down a year ago by Christie about conservatives stalling a Hurricane Sandy relief bill, Paul groused about some of the aid money being spent on tourism ads encouraging people to visit the Jersey Shore in the summer after the disaster. While Paul tried to make an issue about federal aid being spent on ads, his real problem was the fact that the ads featured an appearance by somebody “running for office” (named Chris Christie) and went on to complain about this being a “conflict of interest.” While he might have had a small point, it was lost amid his obvious ill humor at anything that might have done his potential rival a spot of good.

Let’s specify that the practice of incumbent governors, including those running for reelection, appearing on their state’s tourism ads is a bit cheesy. But it is something that virtually all of them do and few people have ever bothered to complain about it. But for Paul to claim that trying to convince people in neighboring states that generally spend part of their summers at New Jersey’s beach and boardwalk towns that the region had recovered sufficiently from the hurricane was a waste of federal aid dollars is a weak argument. Taken altogether, the sour manner in which Paul lashed out at Christie didn’t hurt the governor and only made the senator, who has been taking shots over alleged plagiarism charges lately, look like a sore loser.

The same could be said of Paul’s father going on Fox News to predict that all the praise being thrown Christie’s way was pointless because he was just another “McCain and Romney.” That’ll be a talking point for Christie’s opponents in 2016, but does anyone—even the most hardcore libertarian Paulbots—think Christie is, as the elder Paul says, “wishy washy?” That kind of rhetoric is not likely to persuade many conservatives to vote for his son Rand.

Just as awkward was the dance that Marco Rubio tried to do when asked about Christie by Dana Bash on CNN yesterday. Unlike the Pauls, Rubio tried hard not to sound like a jerk. He congratulated Christie, praised him as a tough competitor, and said he has a good relationship with him and likes the governor. But his attempt to downplay the significance of Christie’s win again was the part of the interview that got the most play and it betrayed the senator’s obvious discomfort at the way Christie has become the national political flavor of the month.

With more than two years to go before a single vote is cast in a Republican primary or caucus, Christie will have plenty of opportunities to flip-flop on a key issue or to display his famously thin skin and hair-trigger temper. But right now, the best thing his GOP rivals can do is to pipe down and let him enjoy the moment. Getting in the middle of the discussion about Christie’s ability to win the votes of demographic sectors that don’t normally vote Republican is an invitation to a bad sound bite for anyone thinking of running against him.

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Ted and Rand’s Father Problem

Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have a lot in common. Both senators have engaged in symbolic filibusters this year against Obama administration policies and have led the charge against ObamaCare and the so-called Republican establishment. And both would also like to be president, something that could, if they run, place them in a fierce competition for Tea Party primary voters in 2016. But they also have something else in common: problematic fathers. While Rand Paul has the advantage of inheriting his father Ron’s existing fan base and supporters for his presidential run, as I wrote earlier this year, the elder Paul also presents an ongoing liability for a politician who aspires to be more than the leader of an outlier faction of libertarian extremists.

But if, as I noted, Ron Paul could be his son’s Jeremiah Wright, that is even more the case with Cruz and his father, Pastor Rafael Cruz. While Rand and Ron Paul have had separate political lives in the last several years as the Kentucky senator struck out on his own and sought a slightly different image than his more extreme father, Ted and Rafael Cruz are pretty much joined at the hip. Pastor Cruz has been a frequent surrogate for his son and is popular in his own right as a sought-after speaker on the evangelical circuit. But the senator is now faced with the problem of having to delicately disassociate himself from his father’s recorded remarks in which he says he’d like to send President Obama “back to Kenya.”

As I wrote earlier today, racism is the third rail of American politics and liberals are always lying in wait seeking to brand conservatives as bigots. Most of the time this is a process that says more about liberal media bias than about the shortcomings of the right. But there is no denying that the elder Cruz’s crack about Kenya smacks of prejudice, not to mention a pander in the direction of irrational birther conspiracy theories. There ought to be no room in mainstream politics for this kind of thing and anyone who doesn’t push back strongly against it—and the left-wing equivalents—will deserve the flack that comes their way.

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Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have a lot in common. Both senators have engaged in symbolic filibusters this year against Obama administration policies and have led the charge against ObamaCare and the so-called Republican establishment. And both would also like to be president, something that could, if they run, place them in a fierce competition for Tea Party primary voters in 2016. But they also have something else in common: problematic fathers. While Rand Paul has the advantage of inheriting his father Ron’s existing fan base and supporters for his presidential run, as I wrote earlier this year, the elder Paul also presents an ongoing liability for a politician who aspires to be more than the leader of an outlier faction of libertarian extremists.

But if, as I noted, Ron Paul could be his son’s Jeremiah Wright, that is even more the case with Cruz and his father, Pastor Rafael Cruz. While Rand and Ron Paul have had separate political lives in the last several years as the Kentucky senator struck out on his own and sought a slightly different image than his more extreme father, Ted and Rafael Cruz are pretty much joined at the hip. Pastor Cruz has been a frequent surrogate for his son and is popular in his own right as a sought-after speaker on the evangelical circuit. But the senator is now faced with the problem of having to delicately disassociate himself from his father’s recorded remarks in which he says he’d like to send President Obama “back to Kenya.”

As I wrote earlier today, racism is the third rail of American politics and liberals are always lying in wait seeking to brand conservatives as bigots. Most of the time this is a process that says more about liberal media bias than about the shortcomings of the right. But there is no denying that the elder Cruz’s crack about Kenya smacks of prejudice, not to mention a pander in the direction of irrational birther conspiracy theories. There ought to be no room in mainstream politics for this kind of thing and anyone who doesn’t push back strongly against it—and the left-wing equivalents—will deserve the flack that comes their way.

As was the case with Paul, who dodged questions about recent intolerant statements by his father who left Congress this year, Cruz is saying his father’s remark was taken out of context and that he’s his own man anyway. Everybody has embarrassing relatives, but when you’re talking about a mentor rather than a black sheep like Billy Carter, it’s not easy to put the problem to rest.

Many of Paul’s supporters objected when I compared Ron Paul to President Obama’s erstwhile pastor and mentor Jeremiah Wright. No doubt Cruz’s supporters feel the same way. But the truth is Ron Paul and Rafael Cruz are both a bigger problem for their sons than Wright ever was for Obama. It’s true that Obama had the advantage of a liberal media that largely ignored the issue in a manner that Paul and Cruz can’t expect. But he still had it easier in another respect. A radical America-hating minister who married you and whose sermons you listened for 20 years is bad enough. But a father who was your political guide and often your surrogate is much worse. Especially when you consider that it won’t be as easy or as comfortable making them go away or be quiet as it was for Obama to silence Wright.

Of course, in some parts of the GOP base, Cruz’s remarks won’t be a problem. But that won’t help either man be nominated, let alone elected president.

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Rand Paul’s Israel Problem

Anyone doubting that Rand Paul has become one of the Republican Party’s most influential figures need only look at the way he helped influence the abortive congressional debate about Syria. While the decision of House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor to back a strike on the Assad regime swayed few in their caucus, there was little doubt that the libertarian/isolationist wing of the GOP that Paul has led had made it unlikely that a majority could be found for supporting a resolution authorizing the use of force. But there is a difference between rising influence and a workable coalition that could elect Paul president.

Paul’s problem is that while he may have the support of the party’s growing libertarian wing, those who assume that the party’s conservative majority will fall into place behind the Kentucky senator in 2016 seem to have forgotten that social and Christian conservatives still represent a more powerful voting bloc than the movement Rand inherited from his father Ron. And the gap between the Paul franchise’s views on several issues and those of the religious right is not inconsiderable. Bridging the gap on some social issues may not be a big problem, as Paul is reliably pro-life. But his foreign-policy views—in particular his attitude toward Israel—may be a much greater obstacle. Paul made a concerted effort last winter to woo supporters of Israel that paid off with some initial success. But since then it appears that most of those who initially swooned when Paul showed interest have sobered up and realized his visit to the Jewish state didn’t alter his isolationist views. While the senator continues to insist he is a good friend to Israel, some of his comments in a piece in BuzzFeed published last Friday undermine that claim:

“I think some within the Christian community are such great defenders of the promised land and the chosen people that they think war is always the answer, maybe even preemptive war. And I think it’s hard to square the idea of a preemptive war and, to me, that overeagerness [to go to] war, with Christianity.”

It was possible for Paul to make the case against intervention in Syria without dragging Israel into the argument, let alone the fervent evangelical backing for the Jewish state. But the ease with which he shifted from his distaste for the Syrian conflict to mischaracterizing pro-Israel views in such an extreme fashion is telling. That’s the kind of comment that smacks of Ron Paul’s distaste for Israel and its supporters more than the attempt by his son to take their family franchise mainstream. But if Paul thinks these kind of remarks in which such evangelicals are labeled anti-Christian warmongers will help him allay the doubts of that community about his suitability for the presidency, he’s dreaming.

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Anyone doubting that Rand Paul has become one of the Republican Party’s most influential figures need only look at the way he helped influence the abortive congressional debate about Syria. While the decision of House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor to back a strike on the Assad regime swayed few in their caucus, there was little doubt that the libertarian/isolationist wing of the GOP that Paul has led had made it unlikely that a majority could be found for supporting a resolution authorizing the use of force. But there is a difference between rising influence and a workable coalition that could elect Paul president.

Paul’s problem is that while he may have the support of the party’s growing libertarian wing, those who assume that the party’s conservative majority will fall into place behind the Kentucky senator in 2016 seem to have forgotten that social and Christian conservatives still represent a more powerful voting bloc than the movement Rand inherited from his father Ron. And the gap between the Paul franchise’s views on several issues and those of the religious right is not inconsiderable. Bridging the gap on some social issues may not be a big problem, as Paul is reliably pro-life. But his foreign-policy views—in particular his attitude toward Israel—may be a much greater obstacle. Paul made a concerted effort last winter to woo supporters of Israel that paid off with some initial success. But since then it appears that most of those who initially swooned when Paul showed interest have sobered up and realized his visit to the Jewish state didn’t alter his isolationist views. While the senator continues to insist he is a good friend to Israel, some of his comments in a piece in BuzzFeed published last Friday undermine that claim:

“I think some within the Christian community are such great defenders of the promised land and the chosen people that they think war is always the answer, maybe even preemptive war. And I think it’s hard to square the idea of a preemptive war and, to me, that overeagerness [to go to] war, with Christianity.”

It was possible for Paul to make the case against intervention in Syria without dragging Israel into the argument, let alone the fervent evangelical backing for the Jewish state. But the ease with which he shifted from his distaste for the Syrian conflict to mischaracterizing pro-Israel views in such an extreme fashion is telling. That’s the kind of comment that smacks of Ron Paul’s distaste for Israel and its supporters more than the attempt by his son to take their family franchise mainstream. But if Paul thinks these kind of remarks in which such evangelicals are labeled anti-Christian warmongers will help him allay the doubts of that community about his suitability for the presidency, he’s dreaming.

By talking about pre-emptive war, Paul was already staking out the isolationist position on Iran in which it is clear he will oppose any action to avert the nuclear threat from that Islamist regime. But even if we restrict the discussion to Syria, Paul’s animus for the pro-Israel community is hard to disguise. There was a reasonable case to be made for staying out of the Syrian conflict, but his willingness to smear Christians in this manner is a sign of just how great the gap is between Paul’s positions and those who worry about the implications of his isolationist views on the Jewish state.

War should always be a last resort. But Paul’s ideological opposition to a pro-active American policy aimed at backing our friends and limiting the influence of our enemies is one that undermines U.S. security as well as making life more dangerous for Israel is already considerable. As it turns out, President Obama, whose feckless retreat from half-hearted intervention to a position that, in a strange echo of Ron Paul’s beliefs, abandons the Middle East to Russia and Iran, is giving us a limited preview of what a Paul presidency would be like for the region.

It is one thing, as Paul acknowledged to BuzzFeed, for Republicans to oppose intervention when advocated by President Obama. But it will be quite another thing when the senator is forced to defend these views and his pot shot against Christian friends of Israel in a GOP primary in 2016. Isolationism may have taken root among some Tea Partiers, but it will be a hard sell for Paul to convince Evangelicals that he can be trusted to defend the U.S. against Islamists and to maintain an alliance with Israel that he has never been that enthusiastic about.

Paul’s lukewarm Jewish charm offensive last winter made it clear he understands that it would be impossible for anyone to win the GOP nomination by sticking to his father’s foreign-policy views, which are in many respects indistinguishable from the far left. But flushed with the success of his campaign to expand the isolationist wing of the party on issues like drones, the NSA intercepts, and Syria, Paul has gotten sloppy. That quote about Christians won’t be forgotten when those voters must choose the next Republican presidential candidate. 

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Rand Paul’s Growing Burden: Dear Old Dad

Last month I noted that Senator Rand Paul’s rapid ascent to the status of a probable first-tier presidential candidate in 2016 had one real obstacle: the man who inspired his career. Ron Paul may have retired from active politics and passed on the family’s presidential campaign franchise to Rand, but he is far from silent and that’s going to be a continuing problem for the Kentucky senator. The latest instance of paternal foot-in-mouth disease came yesterday as the nation paused to commemorate the 9/11 attacks. Here’s what Ron Paul posted about that on his Facebook page:

We’re supposed to believe that the perpetrators of 9/11 hated us for our freedom and goodness. In fact, that crime was blowback for decades of US intervention in the Middle East. And the last thing we needed was the government’s response: more wars, a stepped-up police and surveillance state, and drones.

This is familiar stuff for those who have followed the elder Paul’s bizarre rants on foreign policy which bear a closer resemblance to the positions of the far left than to the isolationism of some on the right, let alone mainstream conservatism. But every time Ron pipes up in this obnoxious manner, it’s going to cause a distraction for his son who must answer questions about whether he disassociates himself from such awful stuff. As Politico notes, when queried about this today, Rand’s response was more in the style of traditional Washington insiders than the straight-talking image he has cultivated:

“What I would say is that, you know there are a variety of reasons and when someone attacks you it’s not so much important what they say their reasons are,” Paul said. “The most important thing is that we defend ourselves from attack. And whether or not some are motivated by our presence overseas, I think some are also motivated whether we’re there or not. So I think there’s a combination of reasons why we’re attacked.”

This shows that after nearly three years in the Senate, Paul can doubletalk like a veteran. But if he thinks he can just shrug off his father’s extremism while attempting to chart a path to the sort of mainstream acceptance that it would take for him to win the 2016 GOP nomination, he’s dreaming. Sooner or later, he’s going to have to place more distance between himself and his father, if he’s serious about being more than a factional candidate.

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Last month I noted that Senator Rand Paul’s rapid ascent to the status of a probable first-tier presidential candidate in 2016 had one real obstacle: the man who inspired his career. Ron Paul may have retired from active politics and passed on the family’s presidential campaign franchise to Rand, but he is far from silent and that’s going to be a continuing problem for the Kentucky senator. The latest instance of paternal foot-in-mouth disease came yesterday as the nation paused to commemorate the 9/11 attacks. Here’s what Ron Paul posted about that on his Facebook page:

We’re supposed to believe that the perpetrators of 9/11 hated us for our freedom and goodness. In fact, that crime was blowback for decades of US intervention in the Middle East. And the last thing we needed was the government’s response: more wars, a stepped-up police and surveillance state, and drones.

This is familiar stuff for those who have followed the elder Paul’s bizarre rants on foreign policy which bear a closer resemblance to the positions of the far left than to the isolationism of some on the right, let alone mainstream conservatism. But every time Ron pipes up in this obnoxious manner, it’s going to cause a distraction for his son who must answer questions about whether he disassociates himself from such awful stuff. As Politico notes, when queried about this today, Rand’s response was more in the style of traditional Washington insiders than the straight-talking image he has cultivated:

“What I would say is that, you know there are a variety of reasons and when someone attacks you it’s not so much important what they say their reasons are,” Paul said. “The most important thing is that we defend ourselves from attack. And whether or not some are motivated by our presence overseas, I think some are also motivated whether we’re there or not. So I think there’s a combination of reasons why we’re attacked.”

This shows that after nearly three years in the Senate, Paul can doubletalk like a veteran. But if he thinks he can just shrug off his father’s extremism while attempting to chart a path to the sort of mainstream acceptance that it would take for him to win the 2016 GOP nomination, he’s dreaming. Sooner or later, he’s going to have to place more distance between himself and his father, if he’s serious about being more than a factional candidate.

Last month, I compared Rand’s situation to that of Barack Obama’s problem with his longtime pastor and mentor Rev. Jeremiah Wright. That brought a ferocious response from some Paulbots who bristle at any comparison between the America-hating Wright and the longtime libertarian standard-bearer. But, in fact, the comparison of the pair’s radical views on foreign policy is quite apt.

Isolationism is a growing trend within the GOP as some Tea Party groups like FreedomWorks have now shifted their attention from tax and spending issues to opposition to intervention in Syria. But there is a big difference between the impulse to stay out of foreign entanglements and Paul’s view that America had it coming on 9/11. A generation ago, Republicans cheered when Jeanne Kirkpatrick lambasted Democrats for being the party of those that “blame America first” in every controversy. Though the GOP has changed since then, patriotism and revulsion against Islamist terrorists who do hate American freedom has not gone out of style among Republicans.

It is almost impossible to imagine Ron Paul ever shutting up, as Wright did once his congregant began running for president. Nor will the press give Paul the same sort of pass for this association that the liberal mainstream media gave Obama about Wright. Nor should it. But even Obama realized that he had to start distancing himself from Wright’s positions and did so, albeit in such an artful way that he wound up getting credit for the episode rather than having to account for sitting in the pews for 20 years and listening approvingly to hateful sermons.

The same questions apply to Rand Paul’s tacit approval for his father’s statements and associations with racist and anti-Semitic publications and groups. Ron Paul was never really damaged by these issues because he was always a marginal presidential candidate, albeit one with a dedicated and noisy following. If Rand wants to truly go mainstream, his father’s baggage is going to have to be jettisoned.

Doubletalk may suffice for now, but as we get closer to 2016, the questions will get sharper and the danger that his father’s big mouth represents to his presidential hopes will only get worse. Anyone who is serious about being president will have to make a choice about this sort of problem. Given the close ties between father and son, this won’t be easy for Rand. But if he really wants to be the GOP nominee, he’s going to have to be more forthright about what he thinks about his father’s views.

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Why the Syria Resolution Remains Vague

The Obama administration has over the last week made its case for military action in Syria both publicly to the American people and privately to members of Congress. Today, the administration fused the two by sending top Cabinet officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, to publicly implore the Senate to support strikes on Syria. But one of the curious aspects of this plea is that it remains unclear what, exactly, Congress would be authorizing.

The administration wants to strike at Assad for stepping over President Obama’s chemical-weapons red line. But he doesn’t intend to topple Assad or specifically help the rebels–indeed, as the Wall Street Journal reports, the administration clearly has cold feet about its previous promises to arm the rebels. That is reasonable–the rebel factions have become increasingly characterized and led by extremist elements. But it is creating some confusion as to the goal of this proposed military action in Syria. In terms of getting congressional authorization, the administration has two options. The two are very different, however, both in their execution and in what they will tell us about American partisan politics.

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The Obama administration has over the last week made its case for military action in Syria both publicly to the American people and privately to members of Congress. Today, the administration fused the two by sending top Cabinet officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, to publicly implore the Senate to support strikes on Syria. But one of the curious aspects of this plea is that it remains unclear what, exactly, Congress would be authorizing.

The administration wants to strike at Assad for stepping over President Obama’s chemical-weapons red line. But he doesn’t intend to topple Assad or specifically help the rebels–indeed, as the Wall Street Journal reports, the administration clearly has cold feet about its previous promises to arm the rebels. That is reasonable–the rebel factions have become increasingly characterized and led by extremist elements. But it is creating some confusion as to the goal of this proposed military action in Syria. In terms of getting congressional authorization, the administration has two options. The two are very different, however, both in their execution and in what they will tell us about American partisan politics.

The president is not interested in ordering a ground invasion into Syria, and the Congress has no interest in approving one. But aside from that, it may not get any clearer before the resolution goes before Congress. That’s because the president wants the resolution to pass more than he cares about the details of it–within certain parameters, of course. So option No. 1 is to lob essentially a blank page at Congress and, through committee drafts and accepted amendments, let the members of Congress who support military action against Syria steer the resolution through the House and Senate.

The advantages to this strategy are obvious: if the president loses the vote, as did the British prime minister, it will be a colossal embarrassment. Passing something avoids the agony of defeat. Since President Obama knows that Congress won’t hand him back an authorization for a ground war in Syria, he doesn’t have much to lose, but plenty to gain: he will have bipartisan buy-in for whatever action he ends up commanding, sparing him further political isolation.

In this scenario, he gets most of the credit, as presidents usually do, if the mission is deemed a success. After all, he was the one who set the red line and pushed for action. And while he’ll also shoulder the lion’s share of the blame should it go sour–again, he set the red line–he can argue not only that both parties and the two immediately relevant branches of government stood behind the act, but that Congress pretty much wrote the resolution.

Additionally, he gets the benefit (at least as supporters of action in Syria will see it) of getting assistance and guidance from congressional hawks in the guise of honoring the separation of powers and deferring to congressional consent. Since Obama has indicated that he is motivated at least in part by a desire to save face here, the process is important to him.

There is another aspect of Obama’s decision on the resolution to consider, and it is potentially far more interesting. If Obama lets Congress decide the wording and extent of the authorization of the use of force in Syria, it will be greatly influenced by the Republicans he needs on board. That means the next round of “GOP civil war” stories will be just around the bend. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, and any others vying to lead their party going forward will have to do more than just vote on the resolution. They will debate the future of the party’s foreign policy, at least in the near term. The resolution that emerges from the process will be, to some degree, a statement of GOP priorities with regard to foreign affairs.

If instead the president retains control over the wording of the resolution, then Congress will be debating the Obama Doctrine. The president will get his up-or-down vote on it, but he’ll own the final product and will saddle his potential Democratic successors with it. That is the riskier, and therefore less likely, route for the president and his party. But the president is still taking a risk by leaving it up to Congress to map out the details, because the split could produce a resolution that is more activist in its military response and therefore less likely to pass in the end.

It’s doubtful many in the GOP saw this coming, but a casual threat about a red line from a Democratic president may end up spurring the formation of the current Republican Party’s foreign-policy identity. If that’s the case, this debate will have implications far beyond Syria.

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The Shutdown Threat and 2016

One argument I’ve been making about the prospective class of 2016 GOP presidential candidates is that the divide between the governors and the senators redounds to the benefit of the governors. Coverage of the congressional battles fought since the Republicans took back control of the House of Representatives has focused mostly on the here and now: divided government and partisan bickering grinds Congress, and thus President Obama’s agenda, to a halt.

Both sides will argue whether it is in the best interests of the republic for the Democrats to be impeded, and will surely argue as well over the legality and constitutionality of Obama’s response, which is to simply vest the legislative powers of Congress in the White House for the time being. But what often goes unmentioned is the fact that the Republicans’ lack of power and the conservative grassroots’ antipathy toward major legislation means the rising stars of the Senate have thin resumes.

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One argument I’ve been making about the prospective class of 2016 GOP presidential candidates is that the divide between the governors and the senators redounds to the benefit of the governors. Coverage of the congressional battles fought since the Republicans took back control of the House of Representatives has focused mostly on the here and now: divided government and partisan bickering grinds Congress, and thus President Obama’s agenda, to a halt.

Both sides will argue whether it is in the best interests of the republic for the Democrats to be impeded, and will surely argue as well over the legality and constitutionality of Obama’s response, which is to simply vest the legislative powers of Congress in the White House for the time being. But what often goes unmentioned is the fact that the Republicans’ lack of power and the conservative grassroots’ antipathy toward major legislation means the rising stars of the Senate have thin resumes.

To correct this, conservative senators like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio have been like tired baseball players in extra innings swinging for the fences on every pitch, tantalized by the knowledge they are one well-timed swat from getting the win. Rubio did this by working with Democrats to get comprehensive immigration reform passed in the Senate, though it has languished in the House. Paul singlehandedly elevated his profile with the 13-hour talking filibuster over drones. And all three of them are now engaged in a high-stakes gamble by threatening to shut down the government unless Congress votes to de-fund ObamaCare.

The ploy is unlikely to be successful, but today the Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan argues that the three Republicans only stand to win by losing:

Why? Because Rubio, Cruz and Paul get to champion a plan that looks attractive to many conservatives in theory but could be politically disastrous in practice.

The trio of senators and possible 2016 presidential candidates is supportingpitch circulated by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) that calls on lawmakers to not support any continuing resolution or appropriations bills that devote even a cent to funding President Obama’s health-care law. The plan has gained very little traction in the GOP Conference, despite a series of campaign-style events in August designed to build support for it.

Still, it’s getting the job done for the principals involved. Politically, at least.

I’m not sure I fully agree with the premise; my sense is that whatever the trio will gain politically will accrue to them whether or not the government gets shut down in the end, because that support is coming primarily from the base, which appreciates the attempt whatever the result. But it’s worth recalling that while the GOP governors don’t want the shutdown–because they worry about the effect on their own state economies–they also don’t need it, politically.

If Cruz, Paul, and Rubio end up running for president, and not much changes between now and then, they are going to be running on ideas–sometimes powerful ideas, powerfully expressed. But they might be going up against governors like Scott Walker, Chris Christie, and Bobby Jindal, who can all boast of having taken on the unions and instituted much-needed reform.

In Christie’s case, he did this in a blue state, proving conservative policy can have mainstream appeal. In Jindal’s case, as I wrote this week, he is taking on the Obama administration’s Justice Department over school vouchers. And in Walker’s case, when the unions, media, and the rest of the American left went ballistic over his reforms, he outmaneuvered and defeated them at every turn.

The governors have another advantage: they don’t have to take difficult, inconvenient, or symbolic congressional votes. And that includes on de-funding ObamaCare. It’s true that the governors have counseled against shutting down the government over ObamaCare, but that’s different from actually voting the other way or standing against the grassroots tide represented by Ted Cruz. Sullivan’s logic, that since the shutdown won’t happen anyway its supporters need not worry about the consequences, rings true for the governors as well. If the shutdown fails, the governors can’t be blamed for it by the grassroots. If by chance it goes through, the governors won’t be responsible for the consequences.

That is not to say the senators should be blamed for swinging for the fences (though the various strategies are not all equal). They have to play the hand they were dealt, and that means accepting the confines of being leading lights in a party out of power. But there’s no question it puts the governors, at least for now, at an advantage.

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Ron Paul: His Son’s Jeremiah Wright

One of the most fascinating aspects of the transition from the 2012 presidential campaign to the post-November political alignment is the seamless manner in which Kentucky Senator Rand Paul assumed the leadership of the libertarian movement from his father Ron. The elder Paul was a perennial presidential candidate as well as a Texas congressman. Last year marked his last futile run for the White House and he also decided not to run for reelection, formally ending his political career and informally passing the torch to his son. While Ron was widely regarded as something of a crank because of his extreme views about the Federal Reserve and foreign policy, albeit one with an impassioned following, Rand is a very different sort of politician. Though no less committed to libertarian ideology than his father, Rand has been careful to position himself within the mainstream on most issues and that strategy has paid off handsomely for him: two and a half years into his Senate career, he has become one of the darlings of the Republican base and a probable first-tier candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

That is something his father could never have dreamed of achieving. It is far from clear that Rand can make the next leap from a factional leader to someone who could actually win the nomination and make a credible challenge for the White House. But there is no comparison between Ron’s crazy-uncle-in-the-attic image and the niche that Rand has carved out for himself in the center ring of the American political circus. The ease with which he has bridged the gap between the libertarian fringe and the Republican mainstream has been impressive. But one of the things that made it possible was Ron’s absence from the political stage. The question for Rand and his followers is whether that will continue and if the political baggage of his father’s extremism will start to handicap what must be considered a very realistic shot at winning the GOP nod in 2016.

But unfortunately for his son, the elder Paul has not retired from public life, meaning that his statements and associations are bound to raise awkward questions for his son. A prime example of this is provided by the Washington Free Beacon, which yesterday reported that Ron Paul will be a featured speaker at a conference run by a group with a record of anti-Semitism.

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One of the most fascinating aspects of the transition from the 2012 presidential campaign to the post-November political alignment is the seamless manner in which Kentucky Senator Rand Paul assumed the leadership of the libertarian movement from his father Ron. The elder Paul was a perennial presidential candidate as well as a Texas congressman. Last year marked his last futile run for the White House and he also decided not to run for reelection, formally ending his political career and informally passing the torch to his son. While Ron was widely regarded as something of a crank because of his extreme views about the Federal Reserve and foreign policy, albeit one with an impassioned following, Rand is a very different sort of politician. Though no less committed to libertarian ideology than his father, Rand has been careful to position himself within the mainstream on most issues and that strategy has paid off handsomely for him: two and a half years into his Senate career, he has become one of the darlings of the Republican base and a probable first-tier candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

That is something his father could never have dreamed of achieving. It is far from clear that Rand can make the next leap from a factional leader to someone who could actually win the nomination and make a credible challenge for the White House. But there is no comparison between Ron’s crazy-uncle-in-the-attic image and the niche that Rand has carved out for himself in the center ring of the American political circus. The ease with which he has bridged the gap between the libertarian fringe and the Republican mainstream has been impressive. But one of the things that made it possible was Ron’s absence from the political stage. The question for Rand and his followers is whether that will continue and if the political baggage of his father’s extremism will start to handicap what must be considered a very realistic shot at winning the GOP nod in 2016.

But unfortunately for his son, the elder Paul has not retired from public life, meaning that his statements and associations are bound to raise awkward questions for his son. A prime example of this is provided by the Washington Free Beacon, which yesterday reported that Ron Paul will be a featured speaker at a conference run by a group with a record of anti-Semitism.

 As the Beacon notes:

Former congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul is scheduled to give a Sept. 11 keynote address at a conference sponsored by an anti-Semitic organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports.

Also slated to speak at the conference is the president of the John Birch Society, a fringe conspiracy-theorist group that was famously denounced by the late William F. Buckley. …

The Fatima Center’s publications have published columns criticizing the Pope for “kowtowing” to the “Synagogue of Satan,” argued that Jews are attempting to undermine the Catholic Church on behalf of Satan, and claiming that “Zionist billionaires” have been “financially raping” the Russian people. The organization also promotes New World Order conspiracy theories.

SPLC reports that the group’s leader, Father Nicholas Gruner, has attended Holocaust denial conferences. Gruner will speak prior to Paul at the Fatima conference, according to the posted schedule.

As the Beacon also notes, Ron Paul came under fire for publishing newsletters in the 1980s and ’90s with blatantly racist and anti-Semitic material, although he later claimed he wasn’t responsible for the content. If the denials rang false, it was because Paul has always seemed comfortable with the world of conspiracy theories that dovetailed with many of his positions on domestic and foreign issues that resonated in the fever swamps of the far right and left.

Should Rand be held accountable for his father’s views? In the abstract, the answer to that must be no. Rand Paul is entitled to live his own life and must be held responsible for what he does and says, not what his relatives do.

But Ron Paul is not the moral equivalent of the proverbial black sheep younger brother that sometimes pops up in our political history to bedevil the more responsible figures in a prominent family, such as Billy Carter. Given that Rand always supported his father’s campaigns and that his own positions are rooted in the same core beliefs as that of the elder Paul, asking where one man’s position begins and the other’s ends has always been a reasonable query. It will be even more important once Rand starts a presidential campaign that aims for something more than the occasional good showing in a caucus that Ron aimed at. At that point, he is going to have to come to terms with the fact that, like every other realistic presidential candidate, he must either endorse or disassociate himself from controversial statements and actions of those close to him.

Since entering the Senate, this is something that Rand has steadfastly refused to do. To date he has been able to keep some distance between his father’s wingnut pronouncements about the government and foreign policy (which bear a close resemblance to those embraced by the far left) while upholding his own libertarian stands. He has never condemned his father, but he has tried to make it clear that he has his own views. But once he enters the pre-2016 fray as a realistic contender that won’t be possible. Ron Paul will either have to cease and desist his extremist statements and associations or Rand will have to start giving him the same treatment Barack Obama gave Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The analogy in which a politician is asked how a longtime mentor and friend impacted his beliefs is quite apt. If Rand doesn’t back away from his father he will soon find that a media that will be out to get him (in contrast to their refusal to hold Obama accountable), as well as a suspicious Republican electorate that wants nothing to do with that sort of extremism, will sink an otherwise viable presidential run.

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Benghazi Scapegoats Reinstated

In May, Senator Rand Paul criticized the Obama administration’s lack of discipline over the attack on the American mission in Benghazi. In particular, Paul claimed that “no one was fired.” Was that true? The Washington Post’s “fact-checker” Glenn Kessler was determined to evaluate the truth of Paul’s claim. Kessler found that four officials were removed from their State Department posts but were not actually “fired,” as we understand the term.

They were instead placed in a foggy category at Foggy Bottom which presumably enabled the administration to pretend it had taken action when in fact it hadn’t. But it didn’t seem fair to hope for their firings anyway, since it was then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s responsibility to answer for the fate of the mission, and she was inexcusably negligent in her work. She deserved, of course, to be the one to lose her job. But that would have been politically untenable for her boss, President Obama, who was getting some help in his reelection campaign from Hillary’s husband.

So it was fairly clear they had found scapegoats to take the fall, and wanted to protect those scapegoats from having their careers ruined to protect Clinton’s presidential aspirations. When time came for Kessler to return a verdict on Rand Paul’s obviously true statement, he punted. “Verdict pending,” he decided:

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In May, Senator Rand Paul criticized the Obama administration’s lack of discipline over the attack on the American mission in Benghazi. In particular, Paul claimed that “no one was fired.” Was that true? The Washington Post’s “fact-checker” Glenn Kessler was determined to evaluate the truth of Paul’s claim. Kessler found that four officials were removed from their State Department posts but were not actually “fired,” as we understand the term.

They were instead placed in a foggy category at Foggy Bottom which presumably enabled the administration to pretend it had taken action when in fact it hadn’t. But it didn’t seem fair to hope for their firings anyway, since it was then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s responsibility to answer for the fate of the mission, and she was inexcusably negligent in her work. She deserved, of course, to be the one to lose her job. But that would have been politically untenable for her boss, President Obama, who was getting some help in his reelection campaign from Hillary’s husband.

So it was fairly clear they had found scapegoats to take the fall, and wanted to protect those scapegoats from having their careers ruined to protect Clinton’s presidential aspirations. When time came for Kessler to return a verdict on Rand Paul’s obviously true statement, he punted. “Verdict pending,” he decided:

None of these officials have the jobs they had when the attacks in Benghazi took place. All of them appear to be in some Kafkaesque bureaucratic limbo that allows no closure in the matter. Presumably, their government careers are largely over.

Yet they have not been separated from government service, which some (such as Paul) might define as “fired.” As we have shown, achieving this is not as easy as it might appear if the sin is leadership failure as opposed to malfeasance. But under some definitions, they are as good as fired. In Maxwell’s case, it appears he would actually prefer to be “fired” since that would give him more options to challenge his situation.

Given this limbo, we can’t rule Paul’s statement as correct or not. We will monitor what happens to these officials in the future before making a final ruling.

Kessler will be happy to know both that he can make a ruling on the statement and that he was wrong about their government careers being “largely over.” Josh Rogin reports that Secretary of State John Kerry “has determined that the four State Department officials placed on administrative leave by Hillary Clinton after the terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi do not deserve any formal disciplinary action and has asked them to come back to work at the State Department starting Tuesday.”

That the four officials have been restored from their “Kafkaesque bureaucratic limbo”–though they will be “reassigned”–is based on the finding that they cannot be plausibly blamed for what happened, otherwise they would surely “deserve … formal disciplinary action.” And that is believable, in fact. It seemed at the time unjust not that these officials were spared heavyhanded punishment but that they were punished at all, thanks to the likelihood that they were merely pawns in a manic damage-control scheme.

That, really, was the point of Paul’s tirade anyway. When Clinton eventually was called to testify on Benghazi, Paul said he would have fired her for her incompetence. As for the officials back at work after being put through this bit of theater, no harm no foul, right? Not so fast, according to Raymond Maxwell, a scapegoat from the bureau of Near Eastern Affairs:

“No explanation, no briefing, just come back to work. So I will go in tomorrow,” Maxwell said.

Maxwell previously told The Daily Beast that the reasons for his administrative leave designation had never been explained to him. He contended that he had little role in Libya policy and no involvement whatsoever in the events leading up to the Benghazi attack.

“The overall goal is to restore my honor,” Maxwell had said.

While not a formal discplinary (sic) action, Maxwell regarded his treatment as punishment because he was not able to work and was publicly identified as being blamed for the tragedy that cost the lives of four Americans, including his friend Ambassador Chris Stevens.

His reputation had been unfairly sullied with no explanation. He was reactivated with no explanation. But he has spent the better part of a year having been blamed by the administration for the death of an American ambassador and three others, so what will the administration do to make sure his name is cleared? What will Clinton do to make it right?

Furthermore, if these officials aren’t (fully) to blame for what happened, who is? Surely the fact that disciplinary action was taken suggests the State Department believes someone deserves opprobrium for the tragedy–or was it not serious enough, in Kerry’s judgment, to warrant anything more than a shuffling of desks around the office?

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Cruz’s Rise Is a Threat to Rand Paul

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that a little more than a year ago Ted Cruz was just an underdog candidate for a Texas Senate seat that was assumed to be in the pocket of the state’s longtime lieutenant governor David Dewhurst. Fast-forward a year and Cruz not only has a pair of decisive victories in the GOP primary and general election under his belt, but is also the favorite of Tea Partiers nationwide and widely spoken of as a likely presidential candidate for 2016. But Cruz isn’t stopping to appreciate his meteoric rise. He’s taking it all in stride as if it is his due and even acting in ways that make it apparent he is taking the presidential talk seriously.

Cruz’s visits to early-voting states like Iowa are a clear indication of the way he’s sampling the presidential waters after only a few months in the Senate. So, too, is the disproportionate attention he’s generating in the liberal media, as illustrated by the Daily Beast’s piece published yesterday that allowed the senator’s Princeton roommate and others to trash him as a “creepy” and “arrogant” ideologue. That’s the sort of unfair treatment that the mainstream media usually reserves for GOP frontrunners (i.e. last year’s Washington Post scoop about Mitt Romney’s high school pranks), not long shots three years in advance of an election.

But just as significant was the way Cruz handled “birther” questions about his eligibility for the presidency. To say that the discussion is premature is to understate the matter, but Cruz wasn’t taking any chances about the story spreading in the fever swamps of the right where he is quite popular. The senator released his birth certificate, confirming that his mother was a U.S. citizen living in Canada at the time he was born, and renounced any thought of Canadian nationality. That makes him a citizen and unless some judge rules otherwise (presumably after he has already been sworn in, which is the only time anyone would have any standing to take the issue to court), that’s that.

But while this is fascinating material for liberal Cruz-haters who have elevated him to the status of the new Joe McCarthy, the person who should really be worried about the Texan’s rise is not a Democrat: it’s the senator’s libertarian ally Rand Paul.

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Sometimes it’s hard to remember that a little more than a year ago Ted Cruz was just an underdog candidate for a Texas Senate seat that was assumed to be in the pocket of the state’s longtime lieutenant governor David Dewhurst. Fast-forward a year and Cruz not only has a pair of decisive victories in the GOP primary and general election under his belt, but is also the favorite of Tea Partiers nationwide and widely spoken of as a likely presidential candidate for 2016. But Cruz isn’t stopping to appreciate his meteoric rise. He’s taking it all in stride as if it is his due and even acting in ways that make it apparent he is taking the presidential talk seriously.

Cruz’s visits to early-voting states like Iowa are a clear indication of the way he’s sampling the presidential waters after only a few months in the Senate. So, too, is the disproportionate attention he’s generating in the liberal media, as illustrated by the Daily Beast’s piece published yesterday that allowed the senator’s Princeton roommate and others to trash him as a “creepy” and “arrogant” ideologue. That’s the sort of unfair treatment that the mainstream media usually reserves for GOP frontrunners (i.e. last year’s Washington Post scoop about Mitt Romney’s high school pranks), not long shots three years in advance of an election.

But just as significant was the way Cruz handled “birther” questions about his eligibility for the presidency. To say that the discussion is premature is to understate the matter, but Cruz wasn’t taking any chances about the story spreading in the fever swamps of the right where he is quite popular. The senator released his birth certificate, confirming that his mother was a U.S. citizen living in Canada at the time he was born, and renounced any thought of Canadian nationality. That makes him a citizen and unless some judge rules otherwise (presumably after he has already been sworn in, which is the only time anyone would have any standing to take the issue to court), that’s that.

But while this is fascinating material for liberal Cruz-haters who have elevated him to the status of the new Joe McCarthy, the person who should really be worried about the Texan’s rise is not a Democrat: it’s the senator’s libertarian ally Rand Paul.

Paul and Cruz seemed to have adopted a friendly, if somewhat wary relationship as they’ve joined forces on several issues like the push to de-fund ObamaCare and spreading fear about the National Security Agency. But Cruz represents the most potent threat to Paul’s efforts to establish himself as a first-tier presidential candidate in 2016.

Unlike other possible presidential contenders, Paul has not bothered trying to maintain a diffident air about the possibility of trying for the White House. Like the media that covers him, he often speaks as if it is a given that he will run. The assumption is that he has inherited the libertarian fan base of his father Ron, who was a perennial, if marginal, candidate. Paul has taken that faction mainstream and the success of his 13-hour filibuster was a signal that he could not be ignored as a gadfly.

But though Rand appeals to a far wider audience than Ron did, that libertarian and Tea Party base is not so broad as to allow him to survive a viable competitor. If Cruz continues to grow in influence on the right, it won’t bother more moderate conservatives like Chris Christie, outsiders like Scott Walker, or even Marco Rubio, whose stand on immigration now positions him closer to the middle of the spectrum. But it presents a clear and present danger to Paul’s ability to capture the right wing of the party. Libertarians may be a greater force in the GOP than they have ever been before, but it is not so great as to allow both Cruz and Paul to run without essentially torpedoing each other.

The more attention, including from hostile liberals, that Cruz gets on the national stage the more worried Rand Paul should be.

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GOP Shouldn’t Fear Competitive Primary

I mentioned in my earlier post the fact that Hillary Clinton’s supposed inevitability in 2008 never materialized, and that few remember how central Clinton’s strength as a candidate was to her potential rival GOP campaigns. Few also seem to remember just how acrimonious was the drawn-out primary battle that eventually produced Barack Obama’s nomination. There were worries all along on the left that the vicious contest would split the Democratic Party and weaken the eventual nominee.

Neither happened, and Clinton eventually went on to serve as Obama’s secretary of state before getting Obama’s obvious support for her 2016 run. The party managed to avoid civil war as well as the attempts to nominate Al Gore–yes, Al Gore–on the second ballot at the Democratic National Convention that year. Despite that seemingly cheerful epilogue, some Republicans apparently worry that a drawn-out primary process could hamper the party’s hopes of taking back the White House in 2016–though this concern is slightly different than the Democrats’ 2008 version in that Republicans are unnerved by the sheer number of potential GOP candidates. They fear not a split, but a shattering, according to the Hill:

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I mentioned in my earlier post the fact that Hillary Clinton’s supposed inevitability in 2008 never materialized, and that few remember how central Clinton’s strength as a candidate was to her potential rival GOP campaigns. Few also seem to remember just how acrimonious was the drawn-out primary battle that eventually produced Barack Obama’s nomination. There were worries all along on the left that the vicious contest would split the Democratic Party and weaken the eventual nominee.

Neither happened, and Clinton eventually went on to serve as Obama’s secretary of state before getting Obama’s obvious support for her 2016 run. The party managed to avoid civil war as well as the attempts to nominate Al Gore–yes, Al Gore–on the second ballot at the Democratic National Convention that year. Despite that seemingly cheerful epilogue, some Republicans apparently worry that a drawn-out primary process could hamper the party’s hopes of taking back the White House in 2016–though this concern is slightly different than the Democrats’ 2008 version in that Republicans are unnerved by the sheer number of potential GOP candidates. They fear not a split, but a shattering, according to the Hill:

More than two dozen Republicans are eyeing the GOP presidential nomination, while on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton looks like she could coast to the crown.

Only a handful of Democrats are even circling Clinton, while the potential GOP field just continues to grow.

“To beat Hillary Clinton in 2016, you need a strong candidate,” GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said of his party’s 2016 contenders. “A crowded field has the potential to give Hillary a bigger leg up than she currently has.”

The contrast poses opportunities and threats for the GOP.

A winning candidate could emerge from a crowded primary stronger and battle tested, much as President Obama was strengthened from a 2008 primary fight with Clinton.

But a crowded primary could also weaken a GOP nominee by extending the fight and exhausting the eventual winner physically and financially.

Or, it could muddle things enough to allow a weaker nominee to emerge.

I’m not quite sure either of the assumptions underlying this concern holds up under scrutiny. Was Obama really “strengthened” by his battle with Clinton? On the other hand, he surely wasn’t weakened enough to lose or low enough on resources not to set records for campaign fundraising. That, I think, gets to the point of why these stories are logical but overheated: nominate a strong candidate, he will not be held back by the primary. Nominate a weak candidate, and it won’t matter.

Obama was a strong general-election candidate, and John McCain was not. Thus, the fact that Obama had a bitter struggle to gain the nomination while McCain effectively had his wrapped up by Super Tuesday had no real effect on the general election. It was Obama, not McCain, who was flush with cash. And it was McCain, not Obama, who had trouble uniting his party behind his candidacy.

As for the perception of the party among the general voting public, the number of candidates matters less than the quality of those candidates. The Hill goes on to name the prospective GOP candidates, and includes people like Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, and Steve King. But the list of potential first-tier candidates who are more likely to actually run and to garner enough votes to participate in the televised debates goes something like this: Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, perhaps Paul Ryan and John Kasich.

There are others, but those names are the reason many conservatives have been optimistic about the future of the movement and the GOP. A popular perspective from the right is that a lineup like that is a good problem to have, and that you really can’t have too many good candidates at a time like this. Whether they actually turn out to be good candidates remains to be seen, of course. But if each of them didn’t have constituent appeal there would be no concern about splitting the vote.

The party will have its debate and choose its standard bearer, and that debate looks to be wide-ranging, diverse, and almost certainly contentious. But it’s doubtful conservatives would rather have a coronation.

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McConnell’s Bad Week Isn’t Fatal

There’s a lot of chortling going on right now among Democrats about Mitch McConnell, and who can blame them? The contretemps over the Senate minority leader’s campaign manager saying he will be “holding my nose” while working for McConnell is not only a public-relations gaffe. It’s a reminder that some conservatives and the libertarian wing of the GOP are decidedly unenthusiastic about supporting the senator’s reelection campaign. At a time when McConnell is already facing a pesky primary opponent purporting to represent the Tea Party and what may be a formidable challenge from the Democrats in the general election, this unforced error is the last thing McConnell needed this week.

There is no doubt that in a year when Democrats are defending a number of vulnerable seats leading even a liberal pundit like Nate Silver to give the GOP an even chance of taking back the Senate, McConnell appears to be the most endangered Republican up for re-election in 2014. But the bad news for Democrats who relish the thought of defeating their leading Washington nemesis is that it will take a lot more than a bad news week 15 months ahead of Election Day to knock off McConnell. Even more to the point, the “holding my nose” quote itself actually should remind us that the leading libertarian in the Senate has a vested interest in helping McConnell win that should overwhelm any reluctance on the part of his followers.

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There’s a lot of chortling going on right now among Democrats about Mitch McConnell, and who can blame them? The contretemps over the Senate minority leader’s campaign manager saying he will be “holding my nose” while working for McConnell is not only a public-relations gaffe. It’s a reminder that some conservatives and the libertarian wing of the GOP are decidedly unenthusiastic about supporting the senator’s reelection campaign. At a time when McConnell is already facing a pesky primary opponent purporting to represent the Tea Party and what may be a formidable challenge from the Democrats in the general election, this unforced error is the last thing McConnell needed this week.

There is no doubt that in a year when Democrats are defending a number of vulnerable seats leading even a liberal pundit like Nate Silver to give the GOP an even chance of taking back the Senate, McConnell appears to be the most endangered Republican up for re-election in 2014. But the bad news for Democrats who relish the thought of defeating their leading Washington nemesis is that it will take a lot more than a bad news week 15 months ahead of Election Day to knock off McConnell. Even more to the point, the “holding my nose” quote itself actually should remind us that the leading libertarian in the Senate has a vested interest in helping McConnell win that should overwhelm any reluctance on the part of his followers.

As embarrassing as it is, we didn’t need to learn about the comments of Jesse Benton that were actually uttered in January about his distaste for his boss to know that his presence in the McConnell campaign was the result of a strategic alliance between Rand Paul and the minority leader. As is well known, Benton performed the same function for Rand Paul in 2010 following a stint as press spokesman for Paul’s father Ron. He’s also married to one of Ron’s granddaughters. His hiring and Rand Paul’s endorsement of the minority leader’s reelection seemed to solidify an informal deal between Kentucky’s two Republican senators.

That this is an alliance based more on mutual needs than shared ideas is also true. McConnell saw a need to shore up his right flank against possible primary opponents while Paul rightly understood that having the minority leader as an ally rather than a potential enemy would bolster his presidential ambitions. This is an important point when considering how libertarians like the members of Paul’s extended clan look at 2014. Though McConnell’s primary opponent Matt Bevin will seek to exploit this to appeal to Rand’s supporters, the point to remember here is that while some of Paul’s supporters may be tempted to oppose him, the Paulbots have a vested interest in having a Senate minority or possibility majority leader that owes their candidate a favor in 2016. The more trouble McConnell finds himself in next year, if indeed Bevin has any chance at all in a primary against the Senate veteran, the more likely it is that Paul will have a powerful motive to help his reelection. The bottom line here is that it will take a lot more than a staffer’s gaffe to inject some life into Bevin’s uphill challenge.

McConnell got a bad break when Democrats wisely passed on putting up Ashley Judd and instead got behind a stronger opponent in Alison Lundergan Grimes. But though polls show Grimes well within striking distance of knocking off McConnell, the numbers may look a bit different next year as her positions are put under the spotlight along with McConnell’s perceived flaws. With considerable resources at his disposal and the very real possibility that 2014 will, as midterms usually are, be a good year for the party out of power, the minority leader may not be in as much trouble as his critics think.

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Never Too Early to Get Ahead for 2016

If you aren’t a political junkie, the growing attention being paid to the maneuverings of the prospective presidential candidates is more irksome than merely boring. But it’s clear that although we are two years away from when the period of active campaigning will start, the contenders are already facing up to the fact that the impressions they are leaving on prospective voters are laying the foundation for the political landscape of the next presidential race. So even as we concede that two years from now nobody will remember the polls and maybe even the controversies of the summer of 2013, that contest will likely be affected by what is going on today.

Like it or not, the dustup between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul over foreign policy is the first defining moment of the 2016 race and, if you believe the latest polls coming out of New Hampshire, made them the only true first-tier candidates in the running. Just as significant is the fact that Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who was running neck and neck with Paul earlier in the year in a PPP poll, has now fallen to the back of the pack. These standings will mean nothing two years from now, let alone in January 2016 when New Hampshire Republicans vote for nominee that could stand up against Hillary Clinton (who seems to be cruising to the Democratic nomination by acclimation as if she were already the incumbent in the White House). But the longer a narrative in which only Christie or Paul seem to be plausible winners stays in place, the harder it will be for any of the many others who want the nomination to raise enough money to challenge them.

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If you aren’t a political junkie, the growing attention being paid to the maneuverings of the prospective presidential candidates is more irksome than merely boring. But it’s clear that although we are two years away from when the period of active campaigning will start, the contenders are already facing up to the fact that the impressions they are leaving on prospective voters are laying the foundation for the political landscape of the next presidential race. So even as we concede that two years from now nobody will remember the polls and maybe even the controversies of the summer of 2013, that contest will likely be affected by what is going on today.

Like it or not, the dustup between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul over foreign policy is the first defining moment of the 2016 race and, if you believe the latest polls coming out of New Hampshire, made them the only true first-tier candidates in the running. Just as significant is the fact that Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who was running neck and neck with Paul earlier in the year in a PPP poll, has now fallen to the back of the pack. These standings will mean nothing two years from now, let alone in January 2016 when New Hampshire Republicans vote for nominee that could stand up against Hillary Clinton (who seems to be cruising to the Democratic nomination by acclimation as if she were already the incumbent in the White House). But the longer a narrative in which only Christie or Paul seem to be plausible winners stays in place, the harder it will be for any of the many others who want the nomination to raise enough money to challenge them.

In the WMUR/University of New Hampshire poll published on Tuesday, Christie leads the GOP field with 21 percent of the vote on a multi-candidate ballot. Paul is a strong second with 16 percent. But Rubio has fallen to fifth place (behind Rep. Paul Ryan and Jeb Bush) with only six percent, less than half of the 15 percent he received in the same poll back in April.

There’s no question that Rubio’s (praiseworthy in my opinion) role in pushing for a bipartisan compromise on immigration reform has hurt him with many conservatives. But I think his lurch back to the right as he makes common cause with Paul and Ted Cruz in a quixotic effort to shut down the government to stop ObamaCare probably isn’t helping him much either. Though this stand is very much in line with his political roots as a Tea Partier, it looks as if he is trying to appease his critics and that is the kind of thing that smells like (to quote The Godfather) a sign of weakness. It’s not just that, as our Peter Wehner wrote on Friday, his position doesn’t make sense, it’s that it conveys (fairly or unfairly) a sense of panic about his standing with party stalwarts. His absence for the foreign policy debate in which Christie has jousted with libertarians and isolationists in Congress is, as Seth wrote last week, also troubling.

It should also be noted that the same poll also rates Ryan as having the highest favorability ratings of any Republican. That echoes the findings of a Quinnipiac survey we noted earlier this week that showed the former veep candidate as the most popular Republican politician. Though Ryan may prefer to stay in the House rather than put himself through the agony of a presidential candidacy, these are the kinds of numbers that make his many fans salivate about the possibility of his running.

It may be a little premature for the kind of handicapping that GOP activist Patrick Hynes gave us in an interesting Politico article in which he gave Paul a slight edge over Christie in New Hampshire. There’s plenty of time for seeming front-runners to drop out, also-rans to recover, and for new candidates to emerge out of the 2014 midterms. But Hynes is right to note that the strengths of both of these candidates are formidable. They are likely to be telling in early primaries like the one in the Granite State where independents and Democrats, who tend to favor Christie, may vote. As early as it is, the longer Christie and Paul remain ahead of the field, the harder it will be to knock them off once the votes start being counted.

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Libertarian Populism’s Emerging Agenda

In the last few months, there has been spirited debate on the right over the electoral viability of what is being called “libertarian populism.” If the term has a definition at all, it owes much to Tim Carney’s advice to conservatives to “Offer populist policies that mesh with free-market principles, and don’t be afraid to admit that the game is rigged in favor of the wealthy and the well-connected.” That is a concise-enough snapshot of what COMMENTARY contributor Ben Domenech has elsewhere called a “New Fusionism”: “Today the most reliable social conservatives are also the most economically conservative, and there is no monolith on foreign policy,” he wrote back in June.

Since then, the debate has been wide-ranging; here is Reason’s list of links to get various writers’ perspectives on it. Watching from the sidelines of this debate, three lessons stand out thus far from the emergence of the libertarian populists. (It’s a bit of an unwieldy phrase, but I nonetheless fervently hope that Jesse Walker’s abbreviated term, LibPops, never ever catches on. It’s nothing personal, Jesse.) When I say the debate has been conducted “on the right,” I am not exaggerating: liberal commentators have occasionally butted in to lob potted insults and reveal their ignorance of all things libertarian, but never to take constructive part in the debate. The lesson is this: the left is treating libertarians as though they are conservatives, because they are unwelcome on the left.

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In the last few months, there has been spirited debate on the right over the electoral viability of what is being called “libertarian populism.” If the term has a definition at all, it owes much to Tim Carney’s advice to conservatives to “Offer populist policies that mesh with free-market principles, and don’t be afraid to admit that the game is rigged in favor of the wealthy and the well-connected.” That is a concise-enough snapshot of what COMMENTARY contributor Ben Domenech has elsewhere called a “New Fusionism”: “Today the most reliable social conservatives are also the most economically conservative, and there is no monolith on foreign policy,” he wrote back in June.

Since then, the debate has been wide-ranging; here is Reason’s list of links to get various writers’ perspectives on it. Watching from the sidelines of this debate, three lessons stand out thus far from the emergence of the libertarian populists. (It’s a bit of an unwieldy phrase, but I nonetheless fervently hope that Jesse Walker’s abbreviated term, LibPops, never ever catches on. It’s nothing personal, Jesse.) When I say the debate has been conducted “on the right,” I am not exaggerating: liberal commentators have occasionally butted in to lob potted insults and reveal their ignorance of all things libertarian, but never to take constructive part in the debate. The lesson is this: the left is treating libertarians as though they are conservatives, because they are unwelcome on the left.

I’ve written about this before, in comparing the Gary Johnson model of political influence with the Rand Paul model. Johnson, a libertarian, could not convince enough Republicans of the righteousness of his candidacy, and simply bolted the party to run for president as a Libertarian instead of doing something that would have required some measure of cooperation with the GOP but would also have done a great deal to advance libertarianism: run for Senate in his home state of New Mexico.

Rand Paul revealed the folly of the Gary Johnson model, where the candidate blames the voters for his own limitations. Paul ran for Senate, won, and now is considered a plausible first-tier candidate for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. Libertarian populism’s emergence is partially indebted to Paul’s success as a Republican, because that is where libertarians (and Libertarians) can find enough sympathetic voters to advance their agenda. In that sense, Domenech is on to something with his Fusionism, though I have two concerns about the ingredients of the mix, and they apply to the other two lessons on my list.

The next lesson has to do with social conservatism. The two highest profile social issues are gay marriage and abortion. Self-described libertarians will simply never sign on to outlawing gay marriage. (That leaves open the question of whether there is a sensible get-the-government-out-of-marriage-altogether compromise, which I think there is.) On the other issue, what is the libertarian position on abortion? Conveniently enough, Reason magazine editors Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie in 2011 took that as their “ask a libertarian” question of the day and gave a brief video response. They both agreed that, technically, there is no such thing as a “libertarian position on abortion” since there is no litmus test for admission to libertarianism. Well, OK–but how do Welch and Gillespie feel about it? From their answer, it’s clear they think abortion should be at least as legal as it is now.

So what happens when, in Domenech’s formulation, the reliable social conservatives are also the most reliable economic conservatives? In the Reason video, Welch says that about 30 percent or so of self-described libertarians are also pro-life. If he’s right, then 70 percent of them aren’t, and that has to be reconciled. If at least 70 percent of libertarians support abortion and gay marriage, how does libertarian populism survive the contradiction?

More broadly, I ask this question because the two most recognizable libertarians in the U.S. Congress right now are Rand Paul and Congressman Justin Amash–both of whom are staunchly pro-life. Amash told Reason in an interview that abortion violates the unborn child’s Fourteenth Amendment rights, and he seemed to suggest abortion should be legal until no later than three days after conception. I should note that I don’t think this should be a contradiction, it just seems like it is. Amash and Paul are correct: the unborn child is the same human person before and after what we consider “viability,” and they therefore have rights. I’m always baffled by a “libertarian” argument that assigns full human rights only to some people and not others.

The third lesson is that libertarians have been somewhat vague on foreign policy, and there doesn’t currently seem to be a libertarian populist foreign policy. This is to be expected, because the internationalist foreign policy has been dominant in the GOP and conservative movement for some time now, so it makes some sense that libertarians would define their foreign policy prescriptions by what they are against, instead of what they are for. But that question will have to be answered, and we once again return to Paul and Amash.

For an example of the intra-libertarian confusion on this, we can turn to a column in the Daily Caller by John Glaser, headlined “Nonintervention must be part of a ‘libertarian populist’ agenda.” Glaser sings the praises of Justin Amash on bringing the GOP back to where he thinks it belongs on foreign policy. But what does “nonintervention” mean to Glaser? Something very different from what it means to Amash. Glaser says the “bipartisan establishment is already leading America into waging dangerous economic warfare on Iran.” But as I’ve pointed out before, Amash supports that “economic warfare.” He supports sanctions on Iran and has even counseled keeping military action on the table. In Glaser’s definition, Justin Amash is no libertarian populist; he’s a dangerous member of the dreaded bipartisan establishment! Good luck forming a winning electoral coalition on those principles.

I don’t mean to suggest that Glaser speaks for other libertarian populists–I imagine he doesn’t. But back in the Jesse Walker post I linked to, Walker says he interprets libertarian populists as proposing “a new three-legged stool for the GOP: anti-corporatist economics, an anti-imperial foreign policy, and (on the federal level, at least) a defense of privacy and civil liberties.” But “anti-imperial” is an exaggerated response to a straw man. He says nothing else about foreign affairs in that post.

Again, all this seems to be in the formational process, and nobody claims to have all the answers. Additionally, this is a moment when libertarians should be heeded on a host of issues, since their warnings about, say, over-regulation were prescient and their fidelity to constitutional principles is both admirable and necessary. But the prevailing conservative mainstream is pro-life and tends to support an internationalist posture to protect global free trade and America’s traditional postwar role in the world. If libertarians want to provide an alternative to that, it will be a valuable discussion to have; but it will be equally fascinating to discover if and how the current elected libertarians will even have a place in that movement.

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Wrong on Paul? Christie Showed Leadership

Rand Paul is the quintessential outsider of American politics. Like his ally Ted Cruz, his disdain for the sensibilities of the Washington establishment is matched only by his refusal to play its rules. But the willingness of some members of the conservative establishment to come to Paul’s defense after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took him to task is a disturbing sign of the crackup of a generations-old Republican consensus on foreign and defense policy. George Will’s brush back of Christie wasn’t surprising, as he has always been a critic of post-9/11 American foreign and defense policy. But Peggy Noonan’s attack on Christie in the Wall Street Journal removes all doubt that some of veteran members of the GOP’s chattering class are headed off the reservation.

The timing of this attack, like Paul ally Rep. Justin Amash’s claim that NSA leaker Edward Snowden is a courageous “whistleblower” and not a traitor, is unfortunate. While Noonan characterizes Christie’s attempt to refocus Americans on the reality of a war still being waged on the United States by Islamist terrorists as “manipulative” and as “an appeal to emotion, not to logic,” it is she who is ignoring the larger context of the debate Paul has launched. While all government power deserves scrutiny, her allusion to a “national security” state—the old line of the hard left that has now been appropriated by some on the right—and Orwell’s Winston Smith is disturbing because it bespeaks not the natural skepticism of the conservative but the knee-jerk isolationism of a libertarian movement that has never cared much for America’s global responsibilities or the need to engage with the world and face our enemies. The isolationist impulse that Paul and Amash are seeking to promote is not a case of “conservatives acting like conservatives,” as Noonan put it, but a disturbing retreat that could, as Christie pointed out, produce awful consequences.

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Rand Paul is the quintessential outsider of American politics. Like his ally Ted Cruz, his disdain for the sensibilities of the Washington establishment is matched only by his refusal to play its rules. But the willingness of some members of the conservative establishment to come to Paul’s defense after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took him to task is a disturbing sign of the crackup of a generations-old Republican consensus on foreign and defense policy. George Will’s brush back of Christie wasn’t surprising, as he has always been a critic of post-9/11 American foreign and defense policy. But Peggy Noonan’s attack on Christie in the Wall Street Journal removes all doubt that some of veteran members of the GOP’s chattering class are headed off the reservation.

The timing of this attack, like Paul ally Rep. Justin Amash’s claim that NSA leaker Edward Snowden is a courageous “whistleblower” and not a traitor, is unfortunate. While Noonan characterizes Christie’s attempt to refocus Americans on the reality of a war still being waged on the United States by Islamist terrorists as “manipulative” and as “an appeal to emotion, not to logic,” it is she who is ignoring the larger context of the debate Paul has launched. While all government power deserves scrutiny, her allusion to a “national security” state—the old line of the hard left that has now been appropriated by some on the right—and Orwell’s Winston Smith is disturbing because it bespeaks not the natural skepticism of the conservative but the knee-jerk isolationism of a libertarian movement that has never cared much for America’s global responsibilities or the need to engage with the world and face our enemies. The isolationist impulse that Paul and Amash are seeking to promote is not a case of “conservatives acting like conservatives,” as Noonan put it, but a disturbing retreat that could, as Christie pointed out, produce awful consequences.

Noonan takes particular issue with Christie’s characterization of the libertarian critique of the NSA as well as drone attacks as “esoteric.” But she’s wrong that in doing so he’s ignoring the concerns that some Americans have with government abuse of power or particular instances in which the NSA may have misbehaved. To the contrary, it is Paul, Amash, and now Noonan who are behaving as if homeland security is an abstract concept that has little relevance to the lives of Americans. What he was trying to do was to refocus the party faithful on a fact that Noonan doesn’t see as particularly relevant. This is, after all, about the measures being employed by the government to defend the United States against an enemy that is, contrary to Barack Obama’s boasting and the complacence of the libertarians, very much still alive and determined to kill as many Americans as they can.

Rather than Christie seeking to manipulate our emotions by references to the families of 9/11 victims, it is Paul and others who have stoked paranoia about “Big Brother” government by posing theoretical arguments about drones killing citizens sitting in Starbucks or misleading Americans into thinking that the spooks are reading all of their emails or listening to all of their calls. Noonan plays the same game herself by trying to unnerve us by alluding to articles about the theoretical ability of super spies to use high-tech software to activate microphones on our phones and record our utterances.

No doubt there are people laboring away at the CIA and the NSA coming up with gadgets that James Bond would envy. But, like the guns that municipalities give police that could, if employed by rogues who run amok, be used to kill innocents, we understand that our security services are primarily focused on dealing with the bad guys. While no system is foolproof, if we cannot trust the existing structure of court jurisdiction and congressional oversight, then it is impossible to construct a rationale for any counter-terror operations or efforts to monitor our enemies.

There are dangers from new technologies and there is always a tension between civil liberties and security in a democracy. But the spirit of resistance to government action that Paul represents is far more lacking in balance than Christie’s apt if impatient dismissal of libertarian efforts to obstruct necessary measures to deal with al-Qaeda.

Noonan is right that polls show a growing number of Americans expressing concerns about the NSA and virtually any expression of government power. Given Obama’s overreach on virtually every issue and his inability to take responsibility for disasters like Benghazi, that is understandable. But what Paul is trying to do is to exploit this natural cynicism to fundamentally alter America’s foreign and defense policy. Noonan tries to spin this as an argument between the grass roots and the elites and the “moneymen” who hang out at the Aspen Institute where Christie spoke. That’s a nasty piece of invective that does little to enlighten the debate. That said, it is possible that a libertarian-fueled paranoia on national security efforts will dominate the GOP’s 2016 presidential race. Yet what the New Jersey governor was exhibiting was a quality that Noonan tends to praise in other circumstances: leadership.

What Republicans need right now is someone who isn’t afraid of confronting Paul and his crowd before they hijack a party that has been a bastion of support for a strong America since the Second World War. Jonah Goldberg is right when he noted today in the Los Angeles Times that the assumption that isolationism is a conservative tradition is incorrect. Isolationism has, as he points out, always been as much, if not more, at home on the left as it has ever been on the right. I, for one, didn’t expect Chris Christie to be one of the few Republicans who would have the guts to call out Paul and the libertarians and attempt to arrest the libertarian tide before it allows the Democrats to become the party with a natural edge on foreign and defense policy. Having done so, he deserves a lot better from those who pose as the conservative movement’s elders than he is currently getting.

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Snowden, Amash, and the Isolationist Peril

Rep. Justin Amash has risen from being a generally obscure conservative Republican member of Congress to being a leading voice of a rising tide of libertarianism that looks at times as if it is about to take control of his party. His ability to rally nearly half of the House of Representatives to vote for an amendment he proposed to end a controversial National Security Agency metadata mining program has catapulted him to the front rank of talking heads on the cable news networks. So it was no surprise to find Amash being interviewed yesterday on Fox News Sunday to comment about national security issues. But the juxtaposition of his defense of Edward Snowden, the man who illegally leaked information about the NSA, with the news that the United States had closed embassies and consulates throughout the Middle East as a result of concern over threats of a new wave of al-Qaeda terrorism, which were obviously obtained by U.S. intelligence activity, should have put Amash’s grandstanding about security policy in a less defensible context.

While Amash and his allies in the Senate, such as Rand Paul, like to talk about the threat to our rights from an untrammeled security state, the threat of terrorism should serve as a reminder of what happens when the September 10th caucus these libertarians are leading succeeds. Though many Americans have been acting as if President Obama’s boasts about having destroyed al-Qaeda were true, both the Benghazi attack and the threats that have sent U.S. diplomats scurrying for cover this week put Amash’s labeling of Snowden as a “whistleblower” rather than a traitor in a very different context than he intended.

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Rep. Justin Amash has risen from being a generally obscure conservative Republican member of Congress to being a leading voice of a rising tide of libertarianism that looks at times as if it is about to take control of his party. His ability to rally nearly half of the House of Representatives to vote for an amendment he proposed to end a controversial National Security Agency metadata mining program has catapulted him to the front rank of talking heads on the cable news networks. So it was no surprise to find Amash being interviewed yesterday on Fox News Sunday to comment about national security issues. But the juxtaposition of his defense of Edward Snowden, the man who illegally leaked information about the NSA, with the news that the United States had closed embassies and consulates throughout the Middle East as a result of concern over threats of a new wave of al-Qaeda terrorism, which were obviously obtained by U.S. intelligence activity, should have put Amash’s grandstanding about security policy in a less defensible context.

While Amash and his allies in the Senate, such as Rand Paul, like to talk about the threat to our rights from an untrammeled security state, the threat of terrorism should serve as a reminder of what happens when the September 10th caucus these libertarians are leading succeeds. Though many Americans have been acting as if President Obama’s boasts about having destroyed al-Qaeda were true, both the Benghazi attack and the threats that have sent U.S. diplomats scurrying for cover this week put Amash’s labeling of Snowden as a “whistleblower” rather than a traitor in a very different context than he intended.

The reaction to the NSA programs has been largely the function of complacency about terrorism borne of the successful American intelligence operations in the years since the 9/11 attacks. But the notion that we can treat the war against Islamist terrorism as having already been won is a myth that both Obama and his libertarian opponents have helped foster. Paul and Amash represent a worldview that sees American counter-terror efforts, whether in terms of drone attacks on al-Qaeda targets or intelligence gathering, as happening in a vacuum that ignores the reality of ongoing efforts to attack the West. That is why they have sought to whip up hysteria about hypothetical drone attacks on Americans sitting in Starbucks, as Paul has done, and to treat a legal program conducted under judicial review and congressional oversight as the arrival of Big Brother totalitarianism.

Conservatives are rightly suspicious of President Obama and his belief in untrammeled government power. But to the extent that he has continued many, if not most, of his predecessor’s efforts to defend Americans against terrorism, he deserves the support of conservatives who backed Bush for the same measures.

To refer to Snowden, who dealt a body blow to counter-terrorism intelligence, as a “whistle-blower” is to treat the war on Islamist terror as either fake or no longer being fought. In doing so, Amash has demonstrated how some on the right have, as Paul’s father often did, made common cause with left-wingers who think the world would be better off if America were booted off the global stage and retreated behind our borders. As I’ve noted previously, the left thinks America is always up to no good while their right-wing counterparts tend to act as if the country will only be safe if it seals itself off from the rest of the world. But as a practical matter, the two positions amount to the same thing.

This ought to have embarrassed Amash, but whether it did or not, it illustrates not only the problems that such an attitude creates for U.S. policy but the political implications of a Republican drift toward isolationism. If the GOP abandons its traditional posture as advocates for a strong defense and America maintaining its stature as a global power, then it renders itself vulnerable to the tides of war that may give the lie to both Obama’s boasts and Amash’s ostrich-like posture. This past weekend should give Republicans a glimpse of just how disastrous that would be.

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The Real GOP Clash: Governors v. Congress

One of the more idiosyncratic contradictions in Chris Christie’s rise to national fame is that his success has been fueled by a crowd-pleasing outspokenness and yet the question of what he stands for has been marked by broad confusion. Christie is happy to tell you what he believes in any given situation, though he somehow remains, ideologically, an enigma. He is currently grappling with the challenge of “proving” his conservatism even though he has generally governed as a conservative.

This may have contributed to his recent spat with Rand Paul over foreign policy. Christie rarely dwells much on labels, or at least does so less than most politicians with national aspirations. So while his attack on Paul’s stance on national security was par for the course, his generalization–that Paul is representative of a dangerous strain of libertarianism–was not. It was an uneasy step into label-obsessed national politics that will be necessary for him to navigate the Republican presidential primary contests. Why this situation rendered the usually sure-footed Christie a bit off-balance is captured well in a few sentences buried in New York magazine’s lengthy cover profile of the New Jersey governor:

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One of the more idiosyncratic contradictions in Chris Christie’s rise to national fame is that his success has been fueled by a crowd-pleasing outspokenness and yet the question of what he stands for has been marked by broad confusion. Christie is happy to tell you what he believes in any given situation, though he somehow remains, ideologically, an enigma. He is currently grappling with the challenge of “proving” his conservatism even though he has generally governed as a conservative.

This may have contributed to his recent spat with Rand Paul over foreign policy. Christie rarely dwells much on labels, or at least does so less than most politicians with national aspirations. So while his attack on Paul’s stance on national security was par for the course, his generalization–that Paul is representative of a dangerous strain of libertarianism–was not. It was an uneasy step into label-obsessed national politics that will be necessary for him to navigate the Republican presidential primary contests. Why this situation rendered the usually sure-footed Christie a bit off-balance is captured well in a few sentences buried in New York magazine’s lengthy cover profile of the New Jersey governor:

For Christie, the villain is always specific: not government, not socialism, not impersonal historical forces, but one moron in particular—the teachers union, or Steve Sweeney, or in this case Rand Paul, the libertarian ophthalmologist, high-mindedly denouncing government while his state is on its dole. “He’s not the first politician to try to use me to get attention,” Christie said later, dismissing Paul’s slight. “And I’m sure he won’t be the last.”

What Christie is doing when he starts arguments with other Republicans—and it is telling that what looks very much like a presidential run has begun with a sequence of fights—is offering his party the chance to preserve its anger, while trading in its revolutionaries for a furious institutionalist.

A good, and often overlooked, example of this is the issue of collective bargaining. Christie was one of the early conservative governors to take on the public unions. But other governors, like Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Rick Snyder in Michigan, went further by attempting to rein in the unions’ organizing power through collective bargaining restrictions or right-to-work laws.

When Christie was asked about collective bargaining, his response was characteristically blunt. “I love collective bargaining,” he said, later adding: “I’ve said let’s get rid of civil service and let everything be collectively bargained, as long as collective bargaining is fair, tough, adversarial and there’s someone in that room representing you,” he said. There are no molehills, only mountains. Christie wasn’t trying to destroy every last vestige of the practice, and so he had to “love” it.

But there was a good–and simple–reason Christie wasn’t fighting to restrict collective bargaining or take other such steps: Walker and Snyder had Republican majorities in their respective state senates, so they could pass legislation on the strength of Republican votes. Christie has no such electoral advantage; his rhetorical agility is essential to his success because he constantly has to put state Republicans on his back and carry them. He isn’t used to having numbers on his side. He can’t outvote the Democrats, so he enlists the public in an uber-populist quest to overwhelm the political opposition. And that brings us to another point of conflict in Christie’s interaction with the national GOP: the relationship between the states and the federal government.

The most famous issue that pitted Christie against the GOP’s conservative congressional caucus was disaster relief after Hurricane Sandy devastated the Jersey Shore. Christie is an emotional and combatant governor who was in no mood to count nickels while his state was suffering. He saw the House’s reticence to rush through an aid bill because of concerns over pork-barrel spending as callous and miserly.

But his fellow Republicans had legitimate concerns. Why does every bill Congress passes have to shell out wasteful spending intended to protect incumbents? And isn’t the callous move here not to temporarily hold up a spending bill but rather to lard up an ostensible relief bill with self-serving earmarks? Nonetheless, such conflicts are an inevitable result of Republican success: the GOP now controls 30 governorships, and the states’ relationship to the federal government will often mean those governors are put at odds with their ideological allies in Congress.

Today’s New York Times carries yet another example. “Worried about the potential impact on the fragile economies in their states,” the Times reports, “Republican governors this weekend warned their counterparts in Congress not to shut down the federal government as part of an effort to block financing for President Obama’s health care law.” It’s not the supposed squishes, either. Scott Walker is opposed to risking a government shutdown over ObamaCare, as is Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, who declined ObamaCare’s expansion of Medicaid in his state, so he can hardly be considered a willing collaborator on the health law.

GOP control of the House and the majority of state governorships will put the two in conflict time and again. It’s not about conservatives vs. RINOs, or establishment vs. the grassroots, or even internationalists vs. libertarians. There is certainly an ideological component to it, but the greater challenge is going to be how conservatives respond when two undeniably conservative factions are in conflict–and they’re both right.

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Tom Cotton and the Foreign Policy Debate

The decision by Tom Cotton, a rising Republican star and congressman from Arkansas, to challenge Democratic Senator Mark Pryor fits seamlessly into the news of the week. Cotton’s reputation as a foreign-policy hawk and a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as well as his age (36), will undoubtedly cast him as heralding the arrival of reinforcements for the GOP’s internationalist wing.

In Politico’s story on Cotton’s candidacy the author even gives more prominence to his role as a “counterweight” to Rand Paul and Ted Cruz (though Cotton shares Cruz’s Ivy League pedigree) than to the possibility Cotton could help the GOP win back the Senate, though the latter is arguably the more significant aspect of his candidacy. But national-security rhetoric is what, still more than a year out from this Senate race, the political sphere is looking for, and on this Cotton doesn’t disappoint. There are few young Republicans willing to say things like “I think that George Bush largely did have it right,” as Cotton said to Politico in an earlier interview. He went on to state:

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The decision by Tom Cotton, a rising Republican star and congressman from Arkansas, to challenge Democratic Senator Mark Pryor fits seamlessly into the news of the week. Cotton’s reputation as a foreign-policy hawk and a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as well as his age (36), will undoubtedly cast him as heralding the arrival of reinforcements for the GOP’s internationalist wing.

In Politico’s story on Cotton’s candidacy the author even gives more prominence to his role as a “counterweight” to Rand Paul and Ted Cruz (though Cotton shares Cruz’s Ivy League pedigree) than to the possibility Cotton could help the GOP win back the Senate, though the latter is arguably the more significant aspect of his candidacy. But national-security rhetoric is what, still more than a year out from this Senate race, the political sphere is looking for, and on this Cotton doesn’t disappoint. There are few young Republicans willing to say things like “I think that George Bush largely did have it right,” as Cotton said to Politico in an earlier interview. He went on to state:

That we can’t wait for dangers to gather on the horizon, that we can’t let the world’s most dangerous people get the world’s most dangerous weapons and that we have to be willing to defend our interests and the safety of our citizens abroad even if we don’t get the approval of the United Nations.

On this, Cotton’s Senate candidacy joins that of Liz Cheney, daughter of the former vice president, who is running a primary challenge against Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi. Though foreign policy doesn’t usually play much of a role in Senate elections (or even, arguably, presidential elections), this debate should not surprise. The GOP is (mostly) in the wilderness, a time when parties traditionally look inward and chart their future path back to power.

The Republican Party’s identity on fiscal issues is more settled than its foreign policy identity. Neither the libertarians nor the internationalists campaign for tax increases, but they do disagree on foreign affairs. Just how even that disagreement is remains up for debate. When asked whether retrenchment chic is gaining a wide following in the GOP, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol said: “I think Christie-Cotton is much more likely in 2016 than Paul-Amash.”

That is true enough in that particular hypothetical, and the temporary halt in hostilities called by Chris Christie and Rand Paul may give it an added boost. Paul proposed a beer summit between the two men, an invitation Christie rejected while taking a parting shot at Paul. How this ceasefire came about can be interpreted in one of two ways. Paul is surely hoping it makes him look mature and statesmanlike, sending out a peace offering and backing off, citing concerns for the party. Christie, on the other hand, seemed happy to keep swinging away, as if Paul was the one who had had enough.

Paul is also coming off a setback in the Senate, where his attempt to cancel American foreign aid to Egypt was brushed aside by his party and soundly defeated on the Senate floor. Christie may think his side has the momentum–and in any case he enjoys a good verbal sparring too much to want to pipe down. But the interesting question here relates more to what each combatant has to lose in the exchange. Christie’s weakness in a presidential primary contest would be the suspicion with which the conservative base views him after his embrace of the president. For Paul it’s the question of his mainstream appeal and electability.

Paul hinted at this aspect of the dust-up in his beer-summit proposal: “I think it’s time to dial it down. I think we’ve got enough Democrats to attack. I’ve said my piece on this. I don’t like Republicans attacking Republicans because it doesn’t help the party grow bigger.” But that’s not exactly accurate in this instance: Christie probably thinks he can win over independents and undecideds by establishing himself as a mainstream alternative to a supposedly fringe element in his party.

Whether or not Paul actually belongs to a “fringe” is far from settled. As I’ve written before, there has always been a strain of conservatives who genuinely worry that the national security state represents a military twin of the New Deal: expensive, secretive–and now, with the NSA scandals, seemingly intrusive–bureaucracies whose budgets grow inexorably even at a time when conservatives broadly favor austerity.

Those who support a robust American presence in the world counter, correctly, that Western prosperity relies on the peace kept by America and the orderly system of global trade that is highly dependent on the U.S. In many cases foreign aid, too, is a bargain–for the influence it earns the American government abroad, the prevention of armed conflict in some cases, and even the direct economic benefits it secures by spurring foreign investment in the American defense sector. Christie may not have the ear of the base when he makes these points–and the same can be said for veteran senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham–but Cotton does, and that’s why his candidacy is already generating this attention, and will continue to do so.

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The Suicide Caucus

Senators Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio insist they will fund the government only if it defunds the Affordable Care Act (ACA). But here’s the thing: They know their gambit won’t work. Defunding ObamaCare while Republicans control just one half of one third of the federal government is a pipe dream. What we need to understand, then, is that in this instance victory is beside the point. There’s no realistic legislative method that Republicans have that is capable of defunding the ACA. The fight is what matters.

What Lee & Co. are arguing is that the ACA is so awful that Republicans have an obligation to exhaust every possible avenue, even if they’re likely to fail. And so you hear a lot about the need to “draw a line in the sand,” about how they want to be able to return to their home states to say they’ve done everything humanly possible to defund ObamaCare, and how Real Men aren’t part of a “surrender caucus.” Sure, they may not succeed in their efforts–but at least they tried. And that’s what matters. If they fall short, at least they’ll have done so with a clear conscience, while daring greatly, with their face marred by dust and sweat and blood. Which is better than those cold and timid souls who oppose them. 

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Senators Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio insist they will fund the government only if it defunds the Affordable Care Act (ACA). But here’s the thing: They know their gambit won’t work. Defunding ObamaCare while Republicans control just one half of one third of the federal government is a pipe dream. What we need to understand, then, is that in this instance victory is beside the point. There’s no realistic legislative method that Republicans have that is capable of defunding the ACA. The fight is what matters.

What Lee & Co. are arguing is that the ACA is so awful that Republicans have an obligation to exhaust every possible avenue, even if they’re likely to fail. And so you hear a lot about the need to “draw a line in the sand,” about how they want to be able to return to their home states to say they’ve done everything humanly possible to defund ObamaCare, and how Real Men aren’t part of a “surrender caucus.” Sure, they may not succeed in their efforts–but at least they tried. And that’s what matters. If they fall short, at least they’ll have done so with a clear conscience, while daring greatly, with their face marred by dust and sweat and blood. Which is better than those cold and timid souls who oppose them. 

This attitude, while a bit too melodramatic for my taste, might be tolerable if there was no downside to failure. The problem is that on the matter of defunding the Affordable Care Act, there is. If Republicans pushed forward on this strategy and it failed–as it surely would–it’s quite likely that it would revivify the Obama presidency and damage the conservative cause.

It just doesn’t make sense to insist on a goal (defunding the Affordable Care Act) that you know in advance is unattainable. And you don’t issue a threat (we will keep the federal government shut down unless and until ObamaCare is defunded) that in the end you can’t deliver on–and which your opponents know you can’t deliver on. That lesson seems to have been lost on Messrs. Lee, Cruz, Paul, and Rubio. Thankfully it hasn’t been lost on their colleagues, who have no interest in joining the Suicide Caucus. 

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Paul Was Too Late on Egypt Aid

Sometimes the legislative process moves too slowly. Had Rand Paul’s amendment to a Senate appropriations bill that called for $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt to be diverted to bridge construction and repair in the United States come to the floor a month ago, he might have had a much stronger argument than he did this morning when he lost a vote to table his proposal. Paul is a fervent critic of foreign aid even to America’s closest allies at all times. But had he been able to bring this up while Egypt was ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, it’s likely more Senators might have joined with him if only in order to send a message to the Obama administration that its misguided embrace of the Islamist government needed to end. But Paul’s attempt to cut off aid to Egypt just weeks after the military overthrew President Mohamed Morsi was a case of very bad timing.

Aid to Egypt was unpopular even among its traditional supporters during the past year as the Brotherhood moved inexorably toward consolidating total power in Cairo. Under those circumstances, Paul’s standard speech about the stupidity of sending U.S. cash to hostile nations made a lot of sense when applied to Egypt. But with the Brotherhood out and with the U.S. needing to send a strong U.S. message of support for the forces that have saved Egypt from Islamist tyranny, Paul’s grandstanding about American money backing thugs was curiously tone deaf to both the facts on the ground in Cairo and American interests. The morning’s business on the Senate floor illustrated in a nutshell everything that is wrong with the Kentucky senator’s isolationist mindset.

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Sometimes the legislative process moves too slowly. Had Rand Paul’s amendment to a Senate appropriations bill that called for $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt to be diverted to bridge construction and repair in the United States come to the floor a month ago, he might have had a much stronger argument than he did this morning when he lost a vote to table his proposal. Paul is a fervent critic of foreign aid even to America’s closest allies at all times. But had he been able to bring this up while Egypt was ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, it’s likely more Senators might have joined with him if only in order to send a message to the Obama administration that its misguided embrace of the Islamist government needed to end. But Paul’s attempt to cut off aid to Egypt just weeks after the military overthrew President Mohamed Morsi was a case of very bad timing.

Aid to Egypt was unpopular even among its traditional supporters during the past year as the Brotherhood moved inexorably toward consolidating total power in Cairo. Under those circumstances, Paul’s standard speech about the stupidity of sending U.S. cash to hostile nations made a lot of sense when applied to Egypt. But with the Brotherhood out and with the U.S. needing to send a strong U.S. message of support for the forces that have saved Egypt from Islamist tyranny, Paul’s grandstanding about American money backing thugs was curiously tone deaf to both the facts on the ground in Cairo and American interests. The morning’s business on the Senate floor illustrated in a nutshell everything that is wrong with the Kentucky senator’s isolationist mindset.

In recent days, even the sternest critics of Obama’s foreign policy have held their fire on Egypt because it seems the administration has started to understand that its infatuation with the Brotherhood was a mistake that was deeply resented by the Egyptian people as well as destructive to American interests in the region. Rather than use the violence in the streets as the Brotherhood attempted to regain power in Cairo as an excuse for pressuring the military to restore Morsi, the U.S. is wisely sending a muted message about the unrest. That should give the new government the space it needs to hold on and ensure the Islamists don’t get another chance to remake Egyptian society in their own image. And it’s also why it’s exactly the wrong moment for Congress to send it a message that would be interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as a U.S. gesture intended to push Egypt back into the arms of the Brotherhood.

Fortunately, Paul’s amendment was tabled by a vote of 86-13 with the vast majority of Republicans voting with the majority. But this minor incident illustrates everything that is wrong with Paul’s ideological mindset.

Paul claims he is neither an isolationist nor someone who doesn’t wish to engage with the world. But his vision of engagement with the world is not consistent with America’s global responsibilities. Like it or not, American support is a necessary element of stability in much of the world, but especially in the Middle East. Paul is right that Egyptians may have resented U.S. aid for decades because it benefited the military rather than ordinary people. He failed to mention that one other reason they didn’t like it was because it was seen as an ongoing bribe to ensure that Egypt abided by its peace treaty with Israel. That resentment was even greater during the year of Brotherhood rule since it was seen as propping up a new dictatorship that was not only oppressive but also bent on imposing its theocratic views on all Egyptians.

That’s why Paul’s attempt to throw a monkey wrench into the U.S.-Egypt relationship just at the moment when President Obama was doing the right thing was so foolish. America’s priority there must be to keep the Brotherhood out of power. But Paul, who is indifferent or hostile to the need for the United States to keep fighting Islamist terrorists throughout the Middle East, has no patience for such nuances.

Moreover, despite his half-hearted attempts to demonstrate that he is not an opponent of Israel this past year, he also dismissed the idea that torpedoing Egyptian aid damages the Jewish state. An aid cutoff is the last thing Israel wants since doing so would help the Muslim Brotherhood and by extension strengthen the position of its Hamas allies in Gaza, who have been isolated since the coup. It would also undermine the peace treaty with Egypt that remains a pillar of Israel’s defense strategy. Claiming, as Paul did on the Senate floor, that he has a better grasp of what’s good for Israel or what its supporters are thinking than Israel’s government or AIPAC was absurd.

This morning’s vote was a minor skirmish in what looks to be a long and difficult struggle in Congress to keep the isolationist wing of the GOP from becoming the party’s voice on foreign policy. For now, Paul’s effort to distance the U.S. from its global responsibilities has failed. But, as with the effort to shut down necessary intelligence gathering or drone strikes against terrorists, the fight is far from over.

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Paul, Christie, and the Soul of the GOP

For a press corps that can’t wait to start covering the 2016 horse race, the exchanges this past week between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul are a godsend. The back and forth between the two, which continued today, is unusual even for potential primary opponents since this is the sort of hatchet work left either to surrogates or the heat of battle during formal debates. But in this case it makes sense for both of them to be doing it and to start as early as possible for two reasons.

One is that these shots are not so much aimed at the target as to establish their bona fides as the leading proponent of their point of view. Paul is looking to ensure that he, and not Ted Cruz or any other potential dark horse, is the preeminent advocate of the libertarian position on foreign and defense policy. By the same token, Christie has stolen a march on Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan (both of whom also have mainstream pro-defense views and might be competing for the same donors) by taking on Paul. If the field is large in 2016, there will, in essence, be two Republican primaries in which each side of this divide will choose a candidate that will probably be the finalists for the GOP nomination.

But there is something else here at stake that explains why both think it worthwhile to start conducting this debate at least two years before even the preliminary period of the 2016 race begins. Though it appears to be a nasty quarrel between two arrogant and ambitious politicians who know the other is in his way, the harsh nature of the comments of the two directed at each other illustrate that what is going on here is nothing less than a battle for the soul of the Republican Party.

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For a press corps that can’t wait to start covering the 2016 horse race, the exchanges this past week between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul are a godsend. The back and forth between the two, which continued today, is unusual even for potential primary opponents since this is the sort of hatchet work left either to surrogates or the heat of battle during formal debates. But in this case it makes sense for both of them to be doing it and to start as early as possible for two reasons.

One is that these shots are not so much aimed at the target as to establish their bona fides as the leading proponent of their point of view. Paul is looking to ensure that he, and not Ted Cruz or any other potential dark horse, is the preeminent advocate of the libertarian position on foreign and defense policy. By the same token, Christie has stolen a march on Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan (both of whom also have mainstream pro-defense views and might be competing for the same donors) by taking on Paul. If the field is large in 2016, there will, in essence, be two Republican primaries in which each side of this divide will choose a candidate that will probably be the finalists for the GOP nomination.

But there is something else here at stake that explains why both think it worthwhile to start conducting this debate at least two years before even the preliminary period of the 2016 race begins. Though it appears to be a nasty quarrel between two arrogant and ambitious politicians who know the other is in his way, the harsh nature of the comments of the two directed at each other illustrate that what is going on here is nothing less than a battle for the soul of the Republican Party.

To recap the hostilities, Christie kicked off the dustup by denouncing the way the Republican Party is drifting toward a libertarian approach to foreign policy that seems too willing to take the country back to a September 10th mentality and, when asked if that included Paul, he responded in the affirmative and said those politicians grandstanding on the issue should sit down with 9/11 victims’ families.

Paul shot back last night in vintage fashion by saying that Christie was tearing down the Republican Party and that it “was sad and cheap that he would use the cloak of 9/11 victims” to carry on the dispute. He then went even further and said “If he cared about protecting this country, maybe he wouldn’t be in this give me, give me, give me all of the money that you have in Washington,” a clear reference to Christie’s tirade about the way some GOP conservatives held up Hurricane Sandy aid to the Northeast.

Christie fired back today by calling out Rand as complicit in the congressional pork system by pointing out that New Jersey gets only 60 cents back from Washington for every tax dollar it sends to the capital while Kentucky garners $1.50.

Clearly, as Christie observed, the argument has gotten personal between the two. In the context of the two virtual primaries that divide the Republican Party, it doesn’t do either man any harm to be perceived by his supporters as taking on the leader of the other side. Though we are literally years away from the first debates or votes cast in caucuses and primaries, the sooner any candidate establishes himself as the leading voice of one of the two main camps in the party, the better off he will be.

But the food fight aspect of these exchanges shouldn’t blind us to the deadly serious nature of this debate.

As last week’s House vote on the NSA metadata collection showed, a genuine schism on national defense is developing within the Republican Party. With nearly half of the GOP caucus prepared to embrace positions championed by Paul, Cruz, and Rep. Justin Amash in which the war on Islamist terrorism is essentially shelved, the GOP may be about to abandon its long-held position as a bastion of support for national defense and a forward American foreign policy that has carried them to victory in the past.

That this debate is being conducted largely on the basis of exaggerations and distortions of the truth makes it all the more frustrating for Republicans who see their party drifting toward a form of isolationism. As Walter Pincus pointed out in an op-ed published yesterday in the Washington Post, Paul, Cruz, and Amash have been able to rally support for this so-called libertarian cause largely because they have helped confuse Americans into thinking the NSA is reading their emails and listening to their calls in violation of the Constitution. This isn’t true. What the NSA has done is not only constitutional and being conducted under the jurisdiction of the courts and with congressional oversight; it has also foiled numerous terrorist plots.

As I wrote last week, Christie’s decision to speak up on this issue in a pointed manner, especially when other potential GOP presidential contenders who share his views have been either distracted by other issues like Ryan or pointedly silent like Rubio, has already given him a leg up on them among mainstream Republicans and donors. Moreover, his ability to take a shot and then return it twofold in this manner shows that he will be a formidable primary opponent.

Paul may have thought his filibuster and the distrust of government that has been fed by Obama’s scandals and abuses of power would be enough to allow him to break through from his extremist libertarian base. If last week’s NSA vote is any indication, such a belief is not unfounded. But what Christie has done is shown that this conquest will not only not be unopposed but will generate fierce opposition from the party’s most articulate, popular and confrontational figure. That will not only encourage others who disagree with Paul to jump into the fray but begin the process of reaffirming the GOP as the party most associated with a strong national defense.

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