Pundits are holding up a snarky back-and-forth between two prominent Republicans—Rand Paul and Chris Christie—as an early showdown between the premier GOP candidates for president in 2016. The exchange began several days ago when Christie came out to bash the “dangerous” libertarian streak in the Republican party, including Paul.
Christie says his remarks were prompted by the House’s vote on whether or not to limit the NSA's data mining related to the Snowden leaks. The House narrowly voted to retain the current program, but Christie still felt it necessary to call out the “dangerous” libertarians who are apparently too ardent in their defense of the Bill of Rights and their dislike of unlawful government surveillance.
Rand Paul’s message on balancing national security with civil liberties is not complicated:
Yes, government has a crucial role in providing national security.
No, it does not give the state license to run roughshod over the Constitution.
If this truly is Christie firing the opening salvos of his 2016 campaign at the Republican frontrunner, he’s playing an old, weak hand. The “libertarianism is dangerous” message was previously used against Ron Paul by John McCain in 2008 and by Rick Santorum in 2012, and against Rand himself this spring by McCain after his filibuster over the use of drones on American soil (“wacko bird” was actually the term used). But is it really?
First of all, the GOP doesn’t exactly have the luxury of tossing friends aside, and libertarians are their most likely allies (Paul pointed this out on Fox News Wednesday morning, along with his offer to bury the hatchet with Christie over a beer). Secondly, Paul has clearly distinguished himself as being more pragmatic than his father on all fronts, including foreign policy. Third, if it is no longer “conservative” to uphold the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, then we ought to be far more concerned about the brand of conservatism Christie is pushing than the supposed threat posed by libertarianism.
It doesn’t serve Christie to get caught up in a debate over foreign policy. As Americans have collectively grown tired of war, they have become far more interested in preserving peace and restoring civil liberties. Paul has caught onto this shift in the political climate, and it’s a reason he’s stood out within the GOP and become the early frontrunner for 2016.
Paul received a huge amount of conservative fanfare in the wake of his 13-hour Senate filibuster, and McCain’s immediate attempt to mock him and his Senate allies as “wacko birds” backfired, forcing the Arizona senator's eventual apology. Newt Gingrich even chimed in on the feud Thursday morning to defend Paul and underscore this point. “Republicans have a real obligation to ask themselves the question, ‘Aren’t there some pretty painful lessons to learn from the last 10 or 12 years? Don’t we have to confront the reality that this didn’t work as a strategy?’” he said on the Laura Ingraham Show, referencing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
If there’s one thing we learned from the Sarah Palin experiment, it’s that governors don’t have inherent foreign policy experience. So why is Christie trying to wrestle with a senator on foreign policy, a topic with which he has little to no experience?
It may be he is seeking to differentiate himself from Paul ahead of the primary race, and maybe get a few early jabs in to lend him momentum going forward, while simultaneously seeking to slow Paul’s mounting popularity. But this is not the way to do it. One surprising take-away from the whole back-and-forth is that someone went toe-to-toe with Christie and came away mostly untouched.
But at the end of the day, the issue that sparked this debate still exists: whether or not we take the Bill of Rights seriously as we go about preserving national security. And that’s a debate Rand Paul has clearly won up to this point, and will likely continue to win.