As Republicans Feud, Others Wonder: Is That a Problem?
PHOTO: Rand Paul and Chris Christie

(Timothy D. Easley/AP Photo | Julio Cortez/AP Photo)

Are family feuds good for the family?

Republicans got the chance to debate that question at the Republican National Committee summer meeting last week after some recent clashes between some of the party's biggest stars.

One of those feuding stars, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, actually spoke to the party chairmen and activists explaining why his way of doing things will bring victory, while jabbing some of his potential 2016 rivals along the way.

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus also brought it up in his closing speech to the attendees, telling the GOP, "We can disagree at times, but we don't have to be disagreeable. Even here, at this meeting, we've had our debates, but we see the same big picture."

Priebus added that there are "people who want to turn the healthy conversations we're having into headlines. They want to make a family discussion look like division. But we're not going to let that happen, either.

"I think it's a good thing that we can have honest discussions on policy," Priebus said at the event in Boston. "A robust party should take time to debate the right solutions and the right tactics. But there shouldn't be any question: We're united on our principles. … We've got a healthy, energized party. And that's threatening to some people. So they label debate as division and they call a conversation a civil war. But they should save the tabloid headlines. We're a party that believes in the exchange of ideas anchored by the values of freedom and opportunity. Not a party of top-down conformity."

While Priebus downplayed the idea of a "civil war" within the party, he did mention specific issues that divide some leaders of the party, such as the NSA surveillance programs and privacy, as well as how to defund the president's health care program.

Christie and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., have had a feud since July, when Christie warned that Paul's brand of "libertarianism" was dangerous for the country. Their war of words has ranged from national security to pork barrel spending. Paul offered to sit down with Christie and mend fences over beers, but Christie said he was too busy with his gubernatorial re-election.

There is also the issue of the best way to defund Obamacare and whether shutting down the government is the way to do it.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is against the move, saying shutting down the government wouldn't shut down Obamacare, something on which his conservative challenger in Kentucky is focusing his fire on the campaign trail.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, disagreed with McConnell's point saying, "The sort of cocktail chatter wisdom in Washington that all the shutdown was a political disaster for Republicans is not borne out by the data."

There also is a split over whether to support comprehensive immigration reform. The Senate Gang of Eight legislation, which includes a pathway to citizenship, passed with support from Democrats and Republicans and was pushed by stars of the party like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. - but the bill hasn't been well received by Republicans in the House, and a resolution passed by the RNC Friday called for immigration reform but no pathway to citizenship, at odds with the bipartisan Senate legislation.

At the meeting, called "Making it Happen," attendees were split on whether the divisions were good for the party or not.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich chocked it up to politics, saying, "It's going to be hard for the libertarian to make the establishment happy. It's going to be hard for the establishment to make the libertarian happy. Welcome to politics. It's a tough business."

Gingrich added that, in his opinion, it's "terrific that the Republican Party is strong enough and viable enough that we have arguments. I've been in the party in periods when there was nobody left to argue, so I'm pretty happy to watch this stuff."

Of course, not all attendees agreed with Gingrich's sunny way of looking at things.

Mark Smiley, the GOP party chairman from Rhode Island, called the "spat" between Christie and Paul "not inclusive."

"There are factions within the Republican Party and that [libertarians] is one of them," Smiley said. "And we don't need to segregate them away or discourage them. They're an important part of this party."

Smiley added that the GOP in his state is "basically split" between "conservatives and moderates," and, "We have to figure out a way to work together."

"That's always a challenge," Smiley told ABC News in an interview at the summer meeting. "It's a battle every day. It's the primary focus of my job, is to get both sides talking."

Of course, it's not just a question of whether the disagreement is good for the family or not. Rivalries may seem more natural when looking at the spats through a 2016 prism. Christie, Paul and Cruz are widely believed to be possible 2016 presidential primary rivals.

Joe Nosef, the chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party, explained it as the "folks who are thinking about running in 2016 [who] feel like they have to make a name for themselves and differentiate themselves from each other.

"I just hope that's done in a way, again, that makes the party stronger and doesn't hurt the party," Nosef said. "And I think that's possible."

Nosef called the debate "healthy," but said he hopes what it "doesn't do is take away from what we're trying to do as a party and stay unified.

"I think people can debate and they can have differences of agreement on policy without doing anything that's going to hurt the party, whether it be morale or otherwise," Nosef said. "Certainly, we're going to have disagreements in debates leading into 2014 and '16, but I hope it's done in a way that's productive."

A.J. Spiker, the chairman of the Iowa GOP and a former Ron Paul supporter, said the disagreements show that "every Republican is different, they really are."

"I would view it more as: We have politicians that are basically posturing on both sides for whatever their political motives are," Spiker said. "I think it's great to have the discussion about ideas in foreign policy and have those debates within the party. And, really, that's how we are going to grow the party and make the party bigger, is by having discussions, having debates and really, at the end, coming together and electing Republicans."

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