There are two prime movers in the Republican Party at the moment. The two men have many similarities — both are 50 years old, and both are relative newcomers to statewide elected office — but they have come to represent the two distinct paths laid before Republicans in the run-up to the 2014 midterm election and the 2016 presidential election.
Down one path is Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), the man who authored the single most memorable moment of the first eight months of 2013 in Republican politics — a nearly 13-hour filibuster of the nomination of John Brennan for CIA director. Paul’s talkathon, which focused on his opposition to the use of drones against American citizens, was amazing primarily because of how “establishment” Republicans such as Sens. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and John Cornyn (Tex.) reacted to it — rushing to the floor to show support for Paul.
Down the other path is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the blue-state chief executive cruising to a second term this fall with a message that vacillates between brashness and bullying — with a pinch of bipartisanship thrown in for good measure. Christie laid down his marker for where the party needs to go at last week’s Republican National Committee gathering in Boston, delivering a stern warning to his side. “If we don’t win, we don’t govern,” Christie said. “And if we don’t govern, all we do is shout to the wind. And so I am going to do anything I need to do to win.”
While the two have tussled in public already this year — think “king of bacon” — Paul argued in an appearance on “Fox News Sunday” that there is plenty of room in the GOP for both men. “The party is big enough for both of us,” Paul said. “It’s big enough for a lot of different Republicans.”
In theory, yes. In practice? Not really.
The political reality is that Christie and Paul almost certainly can’t peacefully coexist within the Republican Party — which has lost the popular vote in four of the past five presidential elections and finds itself on the wrong side of the shifting demographics of the country — because they represent such divergent views on the right way to move the party forward.
Paul sees principle at the root of the Republican renaissance, a core set of beliefs grounded in libertarian principles of keeping the government out of people’s lives and fundamentally rethinking the way American military might is used abroad.
Christie is openly dismissive of the “college professors” in the party who would rather win arguments than win elections. He is a political and policy pragmatist who is explicitly positioning himself as the guy best able to break the Republicans’ White House drought.
It’s orthodoxy (albeit it a newish orthodoxy) vs. electability. It’s the South (the GOP’s electoral base) vs. the Northeast (a shriveling piece of the Republican Party). It’s outsider vs. establishment. Put simply: There are Chris Christie Republicans, and there are Rand Paul Republicans. The twain almost never meet.
While there have been — and will be — skirmishes between the two sides and even the two candidates in the coming months, the fight won’t come fully into the open until after the 2014 midterm elections. But soon after, it should get underway in earnest, with both Christie and Paul likely to make clear that they are running for the presidential nomination.
The battle between the two men will be all the more intriguing because it is really a de facto fight for what Republicans have learned from the past two presidential elections and what they believe is the solution to their problem. Did Republicans lose to Barack Obama twice because they nominated establishment Republicans who didn’t excite the party’s base? Or did they lose because many within the party demanded absolute fealty to core principles at the detriment of winning votes from the middle of the ideological spectrum?
The answer isn’t yet clear. While two-thirds of Republicans believe that the party needs to address major problems within its ranks, there is no broad consensus about how to do so, according to Pew Research Center polling conducted last month. Fifty-four percent of respondents believe the party needs to be more conservative; 40 percent believe it needs to moderate. On abortion, 26 percent believe the party isn’t conservative enough while 25 percent think it’s too conservative. Ditto gay marriage, with 31 percent describing the GOP’s position as too conservative and 27 percent saying it isn’t conservative enough.
Whoever the party’s nominee is in 2016 will resolve that direction question. Christie and Paul represent Republicans’ stark choice heading into what could be the most consequential presidential election for the party in more than three decades.