In the past week, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul have engaged in a rather off-putting political exchange over their respective places within the Republican Party’s already stressed coalition.
Christie, who is widely considered to be a centrist Republican, began the exchange when he criticized Paul for denouncing the NSA’s surveillance programs and labeled the senator’s libertarian political outlook as dangerous to American national security. Paul quickly fired back this weekend at an event in Tennessee, chastising Christie for his attempts earlier this year to secure Hurricane Sandy relief and asserting that diverting this relief money away from the defense budget would prove more detrimental to national security than curbing NSA surveillance programs.
While this spat between two of the Republican Party’s most watched presidential hopefuls has remained primarily in the rhetorical realm, it touches on some important ideological fallacies present in both the establishment and libertarian wings of the Republican party that are sure to reemerge during the upcoming 2016 presidential primaries.
On the libertarian side, Paul’s remarks embody a strong conservative anxiety over increasing federal power, but fail to clearly set forth an ideological basis for addressing privacy issues in the 21st century. This failure greatly limits the extent to which arguments against issues like the NSA surveillance programs can resonate over the long term with American citizens, who deal with other questionable invasions of privacy every day. In this sense, phenomena like Google logging individuals’ web traffic, a growing number of municipalities tracking license plate movements, and state DMV’s taking fingerprints when residents apply for drivers licenses all might make certain Americans uncomfortable in different ways, but remain in practice and not nearly as scrutinized as the NSA’s surveillance programs. If libertarian Republicans hope to gain traction on privacy issues in either the 2014 midterm elections or the 2016 presidential race, they will need to produce a more coherent platform on individual privacy rights that can place a wide variety of questionable government and corporate policies in a clear ideological framework that coincides with conservative values of both strong national security and the maintenance of individual liberty.
On the more centrist Republican side, Christie’s remarks that deemed Paul’s libertarian views “esoteric” and goaded the Kentucky senator to “come to New Jersey and sit across the from the widows and the orphans and have [the conversation about revoking superstore sandy aid]” demonstrate a dangerous inflexibility with approval of government aid programs that may prove problematic with a larger Republican voting base.
Of course, few Americans would disagree with the federal action taken earlier this year to aid the victims of Hurricane Sandy, whose homes and lives, in many cases, were literally wiped away. However, the notion that the level of this aid should somehow be immune from partisan scrutiny is unrealistic, especially in an era when Republicans are digging in their heels on a wide variety of other spending issues as a part of a larger attempt to real in the U.S.’s massive federal budget deficit.
In this sense, Paul’s remarks, while rhetorically charged, are not simply “esoteric,” but do strike an important point that brings the larger efficiency of federal disaster aid into question. If Christie chooses to run for president in 2016, inflexibility on questions about government assistance programs may prove problematic in securing support during the Republican primary cycle.
With these issues in mind, the recent spat between Christie and Paul brings to light some potential ideological weaknesses present in both the libertarian and establishment wings of the Republican Party. As we move ever-closer to the highly anticipated 2016 presidential elections, only time will tell if these weaknesses will need to be mediated by potential candidates like Christie and Paul in order to capture the widespread Republican support necessary for a successful presidential campaign.