Chris Christie vs. Rand Paul: Splintered Battle for Future of Republican Party

PHOTO: Rand Paul and Chris ChristiePlayErik Schelzig/AP Photo | Mel Evans/AP Photo
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The adage holds that Democrats fall in love, while Republicans fall in line.

These days, though, the GOP line looks more like a scrum – or, more accurately, competing lines forming at odd angles on a range of different issues.

From immigration and national security policies to how far to take the fight against Obamacare -- which the Republicans are practically unanimous in hating -- major players inside the Republican Party are deeply divided against one another in unusually public fashion.

With the party's splits on vivid display on both Capitol Hill and among expected players in the nascent 2016 campaign, the question growing inside Republican circles is whether the deep rifts will heal themselves in time for the next election, where GOP leaders see huge opportunities to make gains.

"We have an identity crisis, and you see the identity crisis playing out through all the various fissures," said Ron Bonjean, a veteran Republican strategist. "It could take several election cycles until we actually come to consensus again. Our party may have to go to the brink of disaster before we pull back and realize what we have to do."

The internal battles are generally following the contours of insider-outsider disagreements that have defined the Republican establishment's often uneasy relationship with the Tea Party. But the shifting cast aligning or opposing one another on various fronts make the battles difficult to track, much less control.

The most colorful display is the ongoing brawl between two of the Republicans' brightest young stars: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

Last week Christie worried aloud that attacks by Paul and other libertarian-leaning Republicans on National Security Agency surveillance programs were "dangerous" and reflected forgotten lessons of 9/11. Paul responded by saying the comments were a "cheap and sad" attempt to exploit the victims of 9/11, and suggested that those who think like Christie are forgetting the Bill of Rights.

By early this week, the battle between the party titans devolved into outright name-calling. Paul labeled Christie the "King of Bacon" for his attempts to secure federal dollars for his state; Christie retaliated with statistics on Kentucky's dependence on U.S. taxpayers and went on to call Paul a "Washington insider" – fighting words inside either party.

The NSA battle also flared up last week in the House of Representatives. A back-bench Tea Party congressman, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, came within a few votes of defeating the combined forces of the White House and House Speaker John Boehner, in an attempt to cease NSA surveillance programs that made for the strange bedfellows of liberals joining libertarians.

On immigration, the Republican Party is locked in a well-publicized fight, mostly with itself. Despite an overwhelming bipartisan vote in the Senate that drew the support of the likes of Sens. Marco Rubio and John McCain, House Republicans' internal disagreements are effectively halting action for the foreseeable future, with Boehner stuck in the middle.

And on Obamacare, aside from semi-regular repeal attempts meant to make a statement, a band of relative Senate newcomers is agitating for Republicans to hold up all government funding – risking a government shutdown – in an effort to deny money for the new health care law.

They're getting outside help from leading Tea Party groups, with the implicit threat that primary challenges are in the offing for Republicans who stand in their way.

Cue another war of words: Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a leading House GOP strategist, called the shutdown threats a "suicidal political tactic." The leader of that effort, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, said it reflected a "powerful, defeatist approach among Republicans in Washington."

As much as anyone, McCain – the party's standard-bearer in 2008 – finds himself speaking for what counts as the Republican establishment, an odd twist for perhaps the Senate's most famous maverick.

In an interview with The New Republic, McCain even said with a laugh that it would be a "tough choice" for him if Paul wins the Republican nomination and takes on Hillary Clinton for the presidency. (He later backed away from that, telling ABC News' Jeff Zeleny that he remains a "loyal Republican.")

Republicans in some ways are suffering from the fact that they have a deeper bench than Democrats, with boldfaced names that can make news when they oppose one another, said Reed Galen, a Republican operative who worked in the Bush administration and for the McCain presidential campaign.

Galen said many of the debates have to be flushed out for the party to move ahead after a disappointing election. But he, like many Republicans, would prefer that the biggest disagreements stay behind closed doors.

"There's got to be a better way of dealing with the party's problems than having our better-known leaders out there in open combat," Galen said. "This could metastasize into -- it's not going to be a war, but it could be an ongoing conflict that makes everything harder for everything."

Polls affirm the deep Republican angst more than six months after an election wipeout that stirred the party's re-examination of itself.

A Pew Research Center poll released Wednesday found that two-thirds of Republicans agree that their party needs to address "major" internal problems. But Republicans are split more narrowly, 54-40, on whether that means they should veer more toward the conservative or the moderate direction.

"There is a very substantial segment of the party – call them Tea Partiers, or just very conservative people -- that's pulling the party, and makes it hard for the party leadership to tack in any direction of compromise," said Michael Dimock, the Pew center's director.

Democrats are relishing that lack of clear GOP leadership, even though it may be making it more difficult to build coalitions with Republicans. Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is talking about a Republican "civil war" where, she said Wednesday, "many of their leaders are saying about each other what even Democrats wouldn't say about Republicans."

White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer told reporters Wednesday, "Some of the biggest fights are not between Democrats and Republicans but between Republicans and Republicans."

Democrats went through a roughly comparable stretch while out of power in the 2000s, where party leaders feuded publicly with each other over tactics and policies. The election of President Obama – like the election of Bill Clinton 16 years earlier – served to heal many of those rifts, a fact that suggests any party is always just one election cycle away from a resurgence.

Still, reflecting the broader tensions among Republicans, there's even disagreement among conservatives over whether the public disagreements are a good thing.

Matt Kibbe, the president and CEO of the Tea Party group FreedomWorks, said his group is eager to press Republican lawmakers to threaten a government shutdown over Obamacare funding, despite the institutional pushback.

His argument, in part, is that Republicans won't win back the Senate or the White House by playing out traditional strategies.

"What looks like a gang fight is really a shift in power away from the pooh-bahs who used to make decisions behind closed doors, to a broader coalition of Americans," Kibbe said. "I actually find it to be an incredibly productive debate, and it represents a broader paradigm shift that takes power away from insiders. It has to happen, because clearly there's differences."