Two things happened this week that revealed the basic dynamic of the fight for control of the Republican party in 2016.
The first was a vote on the House floor that would have significantly curtailed the the NSA's phone-surveillance program as outlined in the Patriot Act. A vote that was widely regarded by Congressional sharps as a sort of "blow off steam" vote for civil libertarians nearly passed the House. In total, 134 Republicans (59 percent of House GOP) voted against the measure -- including almost all of the party leadership -- while 94 (41 percent) voted for it.
The second were comments made by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at a panel at the Aspen Institute on Thursday. “As a former prosecutor who was appointed by President George W. Bush on Sept. 10, 2001, I just want us to be really cautious, because this strain of libertarianism that’s going through both parties right now and making big headlines, I think, is a very dangerous thought,” Christie said.
Taken together, it's quite clear that the choice in 2016 will be heavily defined by just how much libertarianism Republicans want in their party. The answer isn't clear yet. But, that more than 40 percent of the Republican conference voted for legislation that would significantly curtail the reach of a government agency designed, at least in part, to preventing future terrorist attacks is telling. So, too, is the fact that Christie, widely expected to run in 2016, picked a fight with libertarians -- and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, in particular -- in the summer of 2013.
Our rankings of the 10 Republican candidates with the best chance to win the 2016 nomination are below. (We ranked the 2016 Democratic field last week.) The number one ranked candidate is considered the most likely to wind up as the party's nominee.
Agree or disagree with our picks? Have a top 10 list of your own? The comments section awaits.
10. Rick Santorum: We haven't had the former Pennsylvania senator ranked in our top 10 yet this year but, looking at the potential field and his track record from 2012, it's clear (at least to us) that he deserves a spot. Re-living last year's Republican primary fight through the terrific documentary "Caucus", we were reminded that Santorum has two things going for him if he runs again: 1) He's a social conservative through and through and 2) He has a genuine talent on the campaign trail. (Previous ranking: N/A)
9. Bobby Jindal: The Louisiana governor began the year looking like a top tier contender but halfway through the year he finds himself clinging to a spot in our top 10. Much of that slide is due to Jindal's increasingly negative reviews in his home state; a poll done in the spring showed that almost half of all Louisianans gave Jindal's performance in office a "D" or an "F". The Fix is no college professor but that's not very good. (Previous ranking: 5)
8. Paul Ryan: Just when we were well on the way to convincing ourselves that the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee had no interest in running for the top job in 2016, he goes and agrees to headline a Iowa GOP dinner in November. Remember the Fix iron law of politics: No politician goes to Iowa accidentally. Doesn't happen. So, Ryan wants to keep his name out there although we tend to believe he still doesn't run. If he starts to show signs of growing interest in the race, he moves up these rankings. (Previous ranking: 4)
7. Ted Cruz: Speaking of Iowa, the Texas freshmen Senator's trip to the Hawkeye State last weekend drew raves. Combine his charisma and conservatism and Cruz makes for a decidedly intriguing potential presidential candidate -- particularly in Iowa and South Carolina. (And, yes, we, and Cruz, believe that although he was born in Canada he can run for president.) We're still skeptical that Cruz ultimately decides to run but if he does, he likely breaks into top five. (Previous ranking: 7)
6. John Kasich: If the Ohio governor wins re-election in 2014 -- Democrats believe they have a genuine chance to unseat him but Kasich is at new heights of popularity these days -- he's got a compelling resume to run on: most notably that he has run and won in a state considered absolutely critical to Republicans' chances of winning back the White House. We tend to believe that the best indicator of whether someone will run for president is whether they have done it before. Kasich has, albeit briefly, in the 2000 presidential race. (Previous ranking: 10)
5. Jeb Bush: And still we wait. The former Florida governor is the frontrunner for the nomination if he runs. (Why? Read Jon Meacham's thoughtful piece here.) But, will he run? After a flurry of door-opening this spring, Jeb has largely clammed up about his political future of late. The internal debate for Jeb is that he would like to be president (who wouldn't?) but he has a strong distaste for the political process necessary to get there. (Previous ranking: 6)
4. Scott Walker: Midwestern governor. Elected and likely re-elected in a swing/Democratic-leaning state. Hero to conservatives nationally for beating back a recall effort over curbing public-employee unions' power. Committed social conservative. Add it all up and sprinkle in Walker's dalliances with early presidential voting states and you have a top tier 2016 candidate. (Previous ranking: 8)
3. Rand Paul: We are increasingly convinced that the Kentucky Senator will wind up being the prime mover in this race -- he will act and the other candidates will react. That's already happened on drones and Christie's comments on libertarianism were quite clearly aimed at Paul. Paul has a real case to make that he is the only candidate who can change and expand the Republican coalition nationally. But, his unorthodoxy also means that things like Jack Hunter might well keep happening. (Previous ranking: 3)
2. Chris Christie: The New Jersey governor's condemnation of the creeping libertarianism within the GOP proves two things: 1) He's running for president and 2) He will do so as a defense-defending hawk in the mold of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The question for Christie is whether he is another incarnation of Rudy Giuliani (tough talking hawk whose moderate credentials doomed him) or a whole new -- and more successful -- model for GOP candidate. Time will tell -- but he's definitely running. (Previous ranking: 2)
1. Marco Rubio: As NBC's "First Read" detailed Friday morning, Rubio has taken a hit for his support of comprehensive immigration reform. But, it's far from a political death blow. His efforts on abortion legislation and defunding Obamacare are clear attempts to re-bolster his conservative bona fides in advance of a 2016 bid. The Florida Senator isn't as strong a frontrunner today as he has been in the past but he still looks like the best bet -- not named Jeb Bush -- at the moment. (Previous ranking: 1)