The war of words between Chris Christie and Rand Paul may have been the opening salvos of the 2016 Republican presidential primaries.
It all began when Christie blasted Paul’s “very dangerous” foreign-policy ideas. It might have been the first time somebody cast aspersions on “esoteric debates” from the comfort of the Aspen Ideas Institute.
Christie invoked the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “I want them to come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and orphans and have that conversation,” the New Jersey governor said. “And they won’t, ’cause that’s a much tougher conversation to have.”
The governor closed with a warning: “The next attack that comes that kills thousands of Americans as a result, people are going to be looking back on the people having this intellectual debate.”
Paul held little back in response. “I would remind [Gov. Christie] that I think what’s dangerous in our country is to forget that we have a Bill of Rights, to forget about privacy, to give up all of our liberty to say ‘we’re going to catch terrorism, but we have to live in a police state,’” the Tea Party senator from Kentucky shot back.
“I think it’s really kind of sad and cheap that he would use the cloak of 9/11 victims, and say, ‘I’m the only one who cares about these victims,’” Paul continued. “Hogwash.” He described Christie as “flippant” toward the Bill of Rights.
The debate soon degenerated into Christie railing against pork-barrel spending in Kentucky—largely due to military bases and policies Paul has little to do with—and Paul calling the New Jersey governor “the king of bacon.” But it was reminiscent of Ron Paul’s foreign-policy argument with Rudy Giuliani during a South Carolina Republican debate in 2007.
Giuliani hit the right emotional buttons and won the room of Republican primary voters. But it turned out to be a bigger moment for the elder Paul, who galvanized a movement of antiwar conservatives that his son may now lead.
This time around, Christie’s Giuliani impression may not even win the room. According to a recent Pew poll, 55 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents have a favorable view of Paul. Only 19 percent hold an unfavorable impression. Christie’s numbers among these voters were 47 percent favorable, 30 percent unfavorable.
A divide persists within the GOP. Paul’s numbers among Republicans who disapprove of the NSA’s surveillance program was 61 percent favorable and 18 percent unfavorable, while 56 percent of pro-NSA Republicans had a favorable opinion of Christie to 25 percent unfavorable.
Nearly half of Republicans say that they worry the federal government has gone too far in restricting civil liberties, compared to 38 percent who say it hasn’t done enough to protect national security. That’s a 21-point shift in the civil libertarian direction since 2010. After Paul’s 13-hour filibuster, there was a 50-point swing against targeted drone killings of U.S. citizens among the country as a whole.
The Republicans’ longshot candidate for Senate in New Jersey reads the politics of the NSA differently than Christie. Steve Lonegan is hitting Democrat Cory Booker hard on surveillance. After the Christie-Paul spat, Lonegan released a statement politely distancing himself from his governor and siding with Rand.
“Senator Rand Paul is defending our freedom against the overreach of our government into our lives and privacy, and the NSA surveillance scandal clearly highlights this administration’s abuse of its power to invade our private lives,” Lonegan said. “I support Sen. Paul’s efforts.”
Nancy Mace, the just-announced Tea Party primary challenger to South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, is already pointing out that the GOP incumbent stands with Barack Obama rather than Rand on surveillance.
The second difference is that the younger Paul hits back much harder against Republicans who try to wave the bloody shirt of terrorism against him. When New York Rep. Peter King criticized Paul and his ally Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, Paul said King and Christie represented “the old, stale, moss-covered, let’s-go-bomb-everybody-into-oblivion” wing of the party.
“It’s the tax-and-spend liberal wing of the Republican Party,” Paul told CNN. “They’re all for blowing stuff up, they’re all for getting involved in wars, but they’re not too concerned with fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets.”
Paul’s Kentucky GOP primary opponent Trey Grayson played the 9/11 card against him in 2010—even highlighting the elder Paul’s Giuliani confrontation, interspersed with Jeremiah Wright footage. “Trey Grayson,” Rand said in a response ad, “Your shameful TV ad is a lie and it dishonors you.”
On Election Day, Paul beat Grayson with 59 percent of the vote. The primary turned out to be a mere bump in his road to the Senate.
We’re a long way off from something that like that happening in the presidential race. But it’s not as fanciful a thought as it once might have been.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?