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A Fight that Had to Happen

On the surface, the Christie-King-establishment vs. Paul-Cruz-libertarian donnybrook that has broken out over the last few days is about national security — specifically, the NSA snooping programs. In truth, national security is but the trigger to a much broader discussion that needs to happen. The fault lines that have developed over the last decade in the GOP have divided the party on spending, taxes, the size and role of government, immigration, gay rights, and America’s place in a changing world.

In short, the Republican Party is in the process of reinventing itself. And the debate now underway between the two dominant strains of conservative thought will not only determine the future of the Republican Party, but also have a great impact on who will be the GOP standard bearer in 2016.

Perhaps the biggest story in Republican politics in 2013 has been the rise of the libertarian right in the Senate and the man who has shown genuine leadership ability in facilitating that rise. Rand Paul has stepped into a leadership void created by the ineffectiveness of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and altered the tone and tenor of Senate debates. The power axis of Paul, Mike Lee of Utah, and Ted Cruz of Texas has given Senate Republicans something they haven’t had in years: voices that speak with a passion and coherence about principles while pushing a recognizable, consistent agenda.

It should come as no surprise that traditional, establishment conservatives would find a way to fight back. But Chris Christie as the messenger? The Northeast Republican has the credentials, but would hardly be the first choice of most establishmentarians. Despite still being mentioned as a possible candidate in 2016, many rank-and-file Republicans have virtually abandoned Christie, given his embrace of President Obama just days before the 2012 election and his apostate views on gun control and immigration reform.

But Christie may not feel he’s dead yet. Speaking at the Aspen Institute on a panel with other GOP governors, the New Jersey governor came down hard on Senator Paul and other libertarians for their opposition to the NSA surveillance programs.

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.

Did he mean Rand Paul specifically?

You can name any number of people and he’s one of them. These esoteric, intellectual debates — I want them to come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and the orphans and have that conversation. And they won’t, because that’s a much tougher conversation to have.

Accusing the libertarians of being soft on terrorism exposes Paul’s main vulnerability. Indeed, the whole non-interventionist strain that runs through the libertarian right goes far beyond defending civil liberties and envisions a world with a greatly reduced role for America, a reduced military — indeed a revolutionary change in the national-security state.

Christie’s attack was followed by a similar assault from Representative Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and a politician desperately looking for an issue to ride to the Republican nomination in 2016.

The New Yorker didn’t pull any punches:

“To me the overriding concern here has to be national defense, national security, and not be apologizing for America,” King said. “When you have Rand Paul actually comparing [Edward] Snowden to Martin Luther King, Jr., or Henry David Thoreau, this is madness. This is the anti-war left wing Democrats of the 1960s that nominated George McGovern and destroyed their party for almost twenty years. I don’t want that happening to our party.”

To accuse Paul of virtually “blaming America first” (and to mention George McGovern in the same breath) is to throw down the gauntlet to the libertarians on issues that have defined the Republican Party for more than 40 years — unflinching support for national defense and a strong, aggressive foreign policy that puts America first.

For the knockout blow, King used the “I” word to describe Paul and the libertarian tribe:

“I thought it was absolutely disgraceful that so many Republicans voted to defund the NSA program, which has done so much to protect our country,” King said. “This is an isolationist streak that is in our party. It goes totally against the party of Eisenhower, Reagan, Bush. We are party of national defense, we’re a party who did so much to protect the country over the last few years.”

What the NSA program has to do with isolationism, King doesn’t say. But if there is anything that is going to keep the libertarians from rising to dominance in the Republican Party, it is the sense that they wish to take the GOP back to the days of Robert Taft and his brand of non-interventionist foreign policy. Taft opposed aid to the allies prior to our entrance into World War II. After the war, he opposed the U.S. joining alliances such as NATO, opposed U.S. participation in the UN, and generally felt that Fortress America, protected by the two great oceans, could afford us the security we needed.

It may be unfair to tar libertarians with the isolationist moniker. Libertarians believe that our interventions have led to a growth in the national-security state that threatens our liberties. They don’t like the UN or NATO any more than Taft did, but stop well short of advocating an American withdrawal from world affairs.

Indeed, in his riposte to Christie and King, Paul made it clear that while he recognizes who the enemy is (“I don’t mind spying on terrorists,” he said. “I just don’t like spying on all Americans”), the overriding issue is big government:

“They’re precisely the same people who are unwilling to cut the spending, and their ‘Gimme, gimme, gimme — give me all my Sandy money now.’” Paul said, referring to federal funding after the hurricane last year. “Those are the people who are bankrupting the government and not letting enough money be left over for national defense.”

That, too, is an unfair criticism. While there was a lot of pork in that Sandy aid bill, the extent of the disaster was so profound that the feds had to step in and do it quickly.

Paul also believes the emphasis on curtailing the surveillance state resonates with the young:

“If you talk about some privacy issues like that, I think you will find youth coming to you,” said Paul, who said his own decision on whether to run for president won’t come until next year.

Ross Douthat also sees the rise of the libertarian right as a generational issue:

Among younger activists and rising politicians, the American right has a plausible theory of what its role in our politics ought to be, and how it might advance the common good. What it lacks, for now, is the self-awareness to see how it falls short of its own ideal, and the creativity necessary to transform its self-conception into victory, governance, results.

The theory goes something like this: American politics is no longer best understood in the left-right terms that defined 20th-century debates. Rather, our landscape looks more like a much earlier phase in democracy’s development, when the division that mattered was between outsiders and insiders, the “country party” and the “court party.”

The vote last week to defund the NSA’s snooping programs is a good example. Rep. Amash, a Ron Paul disciple, cobbled together a coalition of libertarian Republicans and civil-liberties Democrats and almost shocked Washington. Such a coalition would collapse if the question of taxes or spending were to be addressed, but for purposes of protecting basic American liberties, party lines disappeared — for one vote anyway.

Nevertheless, while the fractures between libertarians and the establishment may be most pronounced when it comes to national security, the real fight is over a philosophy of governance. Both sides may agree that government is too big, but what happens when one side gives lip service to that idea and the other genuinely wants to do something about it? More traditional conservatives may argue that social spending and government agencies like the EPA need to be reined in, but basic government functions cannot be eliminated. Libertarians want to roll back a large slice of the welfare state and actually reduce the size of government and the scope of its responsibilities. Whether that could actually be accomplished is unknown given the constituencies that have grown up around entitlements and departments like energy and education — both of which would be targeted for elimination in a libertarian administration.

For purposes of this debate, details aren’t important. What matters is that the libertarian right has found its voice and is making its presence felt in every corner of the Republican Party. In so doing, it has made the “court party” very uncomfortable. However, it should be pointed out that the last two establishment GOP presidential candidates have had fairly easy runs to the nomination, despite efforts by the Tea Party and its allies to stop them. Whether the libertarians can convince the broad swath of self-identified Republicans to give them a chance remains to be seen.