The Chris Christie vs. Rand Paul Civil War is the Best Thing the GOP Could Ask For


While Sarah Palin rarely provokes anything more than justified contempt among the left, her recent announcement that she is on "Team Rand" is as good a cause as any for liberals to remind themselves of why the ongoing feud between the libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and the center-right New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) — two of the top contenders for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination — is a cause for celebration. Here's why:

1. It could end the era of the Republican Party serving as an ideological monolith.

Believe it or not, there once was a time when Republicanism was not automatically associated with the neoconservatism of George W. Bush and the rightist libertarianism of Tea Partyers. From its inception in 1854 as a vehicle for opposing the westward expansion of slavery through the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the GOP used to be renowned for its ability to shelter a wide range of political philosophies under a single partisan umbrella. More often than not, these disparate groups would be able to unify behind a single national candidate who could fairly represent all (or at least many) of their interests. When that failed, and the soul of the party became a hotly contested property, and the struggles between ideological champions became the stuff of political legend: See the 1912 crusade of the party's intellectual wing against the more business-oriented establishment, the 1952 showdown between New Deal-era centrism and pre-FDR libertarianism, the 1964 battle between the progressivism of the Eastern states and the conservatism of the Southern and Western regions, and the 1976 rehash of the 1964 conflict, to name only a few. While ideological flare-ups have not been unknown since 1980, each of the aforementioned clashes were distinguished by the genuine uncertainty pertaining to the outcome. Since the Reagan Revolution, however, no faction dissenting from the programmatic consensus of the post-Reagan conservative coalition has had a realistic chance of seizing control of the party, regardless of whether it attacks the establishment from the left or right.

2. It would reintroduce a liberal perspective into Republican foreign policy.

Although progressive and conservative factions could be found grappling for control of the GOP as "recently" as 1976, the last non-interventionist presidential prospect to come within striking distance of the Republican nomination was Robert Taft in 1952 . This is a particularly tragic development, given that presidents all the way back to George Washington have expressed grave concerns about the dangers of America overextending its influence abroad. Even if one believes that the practical realities of the modern world necessitate our current global presence (as Christie has repeatedly claimed), it is hard to convincingly claim that the alternate perspective should not at least have a prominent place in our foreign policy discourse. Just as there is a need for Christie's belief that an expansive security state and active world presence is vital to America's safety and ideals, so too do we benefit from Paul's voice challenging the constitutionality of the NSA spying program and pointing out the dangers of "a foreign policy that borrows from China to pay people who burn our flag in Egypt." Indeed, as we mark the 115th anniversary of the end of the Spanish-American War today — the conflict that began America's transformation into an imperialist power beyond our own hemisphere — the need for a contrary view is more crucial than ever. As progressive Sen. Robert "Fighting Bob Bob" La Follette of (R-Wis.) prophetically warned, "Every nation has its war party ... It is commercial, imperialistic, ruthless. It tolerates no opposition."

3. Similarly, it would reintroduce a liberal perspective into Republican economic policy.

Although Christie is hardly an economic progressive, his defense of federal assistance to the needy — from his support of moderate (and reduced) welfare programs in his state to his push for reconstruction funds after Hurricane Sandy — is in stark contrast to Paul's dogmatic libertarianism on that same front. This is essential considering that, since 1980, the thrust of Republican politics has focused more and more on dismantling social insurance programs of all kinds (or at the very least offering temporary accommodations with the eventual hope of eliminating them). Before that year, however, some of America's most important federal economic projects were born from Republican presidents: Abraham Lincoln created the first income tax, the first progressive income tax , the land-grant college system that eventually led to state colleges, and America's first transcontinental railroad. Theodore Roosevelt became the first president to pass meaningful legislation pertaining to food and drug regulation, railroad regulation, conservation , as well as was the first to aggressively fight against business trusts and defend the rights of labor. Dwight Eisenhower, along with keeping top marginal income tax rates at 91% (compared to under 40% today), signed the Federal Highway Act of 1956 into law, which created the modern Interstate Highway System. Once again, the key question here is not whether one agrees with these and comparable left-wing economic ideas, but rather whether they should have defenders in the Republican as well as Democratic circles. If one truly believes in unfettered debate, it is hard to argue that only one party should have advocates of the progressive perspective on these questions.

It is tempting to include a fourth argument here — i.e., the notion that a feud within the Republican Party would strengthen the Democrats' chances of winning in 2016. While a case can certainly be made to that effect, I would argue that a meaningful debate in the GOP would be more likely to strengthen than weaken that organization. If nothing else, it would provide an important makeover to the party's public image. In the 2012 election, it became obvious that the dust of years of forced ideological consensus had accumulated to such an extent that voters could not help but take notice. If that dust is shaken off, the party will not only increase its chances of winning, but also will offer liberal-minded and other independent voters a means of identifying with a party that once seemed entirely alien to them. Even if that identification only comes with a handful of issues, and is only achieved piecemeal and over the years, it would still be a legitimate cause for rejoicing on the left.