Two things happened last 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 National Security Agency’s phone-surveillance program as outlined in the Patriot Act. The vote, widely regarded by congressional sharps as an opportunity for civil libertarians to blow off steam, was nearly successful. In total, 94 House Republicans (40 percent of the GOP conference) voted for the measure.
The second was a comment by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) 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, these things make it 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 certain yet. But it is telling that 40 percent of the House Republican conference voted for legislation that would have significantly curtailed the reach of a government program designed, at least in part, to prevent terrorist attacks. So, too, is the fact that Christie, widely expected to run in 2016, picked a fight with libertarians — and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), in particular — in the summer of 2013.
Below are the 10 Republicans who will be at the center of that fight — and the broader battle for the 2016 GOP nomination.
10. Rick Santorum: Reliving last year’s GOP primary contest through the terrific documentary “Caucus,” we were reminded that Santorum has two things going for him if he runs again: He’s a social conservative through and through, and he has genuine talent on the campaign trail.
9. Bobby Jindal: The Louisiana governor began 2013 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.
8. Paul Ryan: Just when we were well on the way to convincing ourselves that the 2012 vice-presidential nominee had no interest in running for the top job in 2016, he goes and agrees to headline an Iowa GOP dinner in November. Remember the Fix’s iron law of politics: No politician goes to Iowa accidentally. Doesn’t happen.
7. Ted Cruz: Speaking of Iowa, the freshman senator’s trip to the Hawkeye State two weekends ago drew raves. Combine the Texan’s charisma and conservatism, and Cruz makes for a decidedly intriguing potential presidential candidate — particularly in Iowa and South Carolina.
6. John Kasich: If the Ohio governor wins reelection in 2014 — Democrats think they have a genuine chance to unseat him, but Kasich is at new heights of popularity these days — he’s got a compelling résumé to run for president on, most notably that he has won in a state considered absolutely critical to Republicans’ chances of winning back the White House.
5. Jeb Bush: And still we wait. The former Florida governor is the front-runner for the nomination — if he runs. But will he? After a flurry of door-opening this spring, Bush has largely clammed up about his political future.
4. Scott Walker: Midwestern governor. Elected (and probably reelected next year) in a swing/Democratic-leaning state, Wisconsin. 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.
3. Rand Paul: We are increasingly convinced that the senator from Kentucky 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.
2. Chris Christie: The New Jersey governor’s condemnation of the creeping libertarianism in the GOP proves two things: He’s running for president, and 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 — a tough-talking hawk whose moderate credentials doomed him — or a new and more successful model for a GOP candidate. Time will tell, but he’s definitely running.
1. Marco Rubio: Rubio has taken a hit for his support of comprehensive immigration reform. But it’s far from a political death blow. His efforts on anti-abortion legislation and defunding Obamacare are clear attempts to bolster his conservative bona fides in advance of a 2016 bid. The senator from Florida isn’t as strong a front-runner today as he has been in the past, but he still looks like the best bet — not named Jeb Bush — at the moment.