The foreign policy tussle between Chris Christie and Rand Paul, two likely 2016 Republican presidential contenders, marks the most public flaring of a long-simmering debate between the GOP’s long-time hawkish bent and the libertarian infusion the party has experienced in the last two election cycles.
When push comes to shove, do Republicans weigh in on the side of national security and foreign intervention or of privacy and greater international detachment? And which path will help grow a political party that even some of its leaders fear faces deep demographic challenges?
Of course, both Senator Paul (R) of Kentucky and New Jersey Governor Christie would argue their path does all those things – they just strongly disagree about how to proceed.
“This strain of libertarianism that’s going through parties right now and making big headlines I think is a very dangerous thought,” Christie said on a panel in Aspen, Colo. on Thursday, according to the New York Times.
Later, he continued: “The next attack that comes, that kills thousands of Americans as a result, people are going to be looking back on the people having this intellectual debate and wondering whether they put …” before abruptly ending his thought.
In a Facebook post, Paul, who most famously launched an hours-long filibuster over domestic US drone use and who has pushed to cut off foreign aid to many restive Middle East nations, rejoined that “Chris Christie thinks freedom is dangerous. What's dangerous is a foreign policy that borrows from China to pay people who burn our flag in Egypt.”
Paul’s political Facebook page was less restrained, calling Christie “Obama’s favorite Republican” and wondering if the governor approves of sending weapons to “al Qaeda allies” in Syria.
While the tiff is a spot of positioning between two presidential contenders at either end of a particular policy debate, it’s also an argument that reverberates deep down into the Republican Party.
In Congress, there’s a stark divide between Team Christie and Team Paul.
Rep. Peter King (R) of New York, a former chairman of the Homeland Security Committee and a veteran foreign policy hawk, said he “isn’t saying no” to a potential presidential run in part because “when I see people like Rand Paul talking about drones killing people out to get a cup of coffee, I don't want that to be the face of the national Republican Party," he told The Hill.
But the reason Congressman King, a 20-year House veteran, has found himself back in the congressional majority is because of a surge of more Paul-minded reinforcements like Rep. Raul Labrador (R) of Idaho. And those folks want more Rand, not less.
Representative Labrador frequently speaks about adding a libertarian “fourth leg” to the traditional three-legged stool of Republican support: evangelicals, fiscal conservatives, and foreign policy hawks.
“If you do away with any of the legs of that stool, you get rid of an entire coalition,” Labrador told the Washington Examiner. “We are concerned about fiscal matters and about civil liberties issues.”
But the relative size and strength of that fourth leg – and how this debate splits Democrats, too – was on display Wednesday, when the House took up an amendment to the bill funding the Department of Defense from Rep. Justin Amash (R) of Michigan, the most obstreperous House libertarian.
Representative Amash’s amendment would have de-funded a National Security Agency program started in the President George W. Bush administration that collects Americans’ phone records.
While that brought a majority of the GOP conference (134 votes) against the bill, 94 Republicans voted against the party’s mandarins and for the bill.
And those 94 Republicans were joined by a majority of Democrats in what Labrador jokingly called the “wing nut coalition” earlier in the day.
Minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California was among the 83 Democrats who voted against the Amash amendment – but a majority (111, including the amendment’s co-sponsor, Michigan Democrat John Conyers) voted for the bill against the wishes of the White House.
Representative Pelosi, who voted against the Patriot Act that authorized the surveillance program during its last renewal, later circulated a letter to Obama saying that despite the fact the amendment was defeated “it is clear that concerns remain about the continued implementation of the program in its current form.”
Pelosi’s letter raises several questions to the administration, including whether the law is being implemented consistent with congressional intent.
But the fact that the “wing nut coalition” was able to muscle a vote on an amendment that leadership opposed shows they’re far from a fringe movement.
Speaker Boehner told reporters he feels “very strongly that the Congress couldn't just avoid the debate. Members wanted to have this debate. I believe – you all know, I believe in a more open process. And I wanted the House to have this debate,” he said. “We did.”
But they certainly didn’t solve it.