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.