Kentucky senator Rand Paul and New Jersey governor Chris Christie had words recently over their differing views of the federal government’s warrantless surveillance program. Paul is critical of the snooping; Christie supports it. While each man is undoubtedly sincere in his beliefs, politics is at the heart of the argument. Both men would like to be president. Each sees the other as a major obstacle to his presidential ambitions. An interesting question, to me at least, is whether Christie actually believes that he can become his party’s nominee for president. I see no chance of this happening, certainly not in 2016. On the other hand, the second spot on the ticket could be his under certain circumstances. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s go back for a moment to the Rand-Christie split over domestic surveillance.
In late July, Christie fired the opening salvo in the surveillance debate with remarks made during an Aspen Institute panel discussion featuring four Republican governors (Christie, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and Mike Pence of Indiana). He assailed the “strain of libertarianism” running through the two major parties with respect to both foreign policy and the War on Terror, calling it “very dangerous” for the country. “President Obama has done nothing to change the policies of the Bush administration in the War on Terror,” he continued. “And you know why? ’Cause they work.” He went on to criticize Senator Paul by name, for engaging in “esoteric, intellectual debates” on the subject. “I want them [i.e., Paul and those who support his views] to come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and orphans [of 9/11 victims] and have that conversation. And they won’t, ’cause that’s a tougher conversation to have.”
Paul responded to Christie’s remarks in an interview with Sean Hannity:
You know, I think it’s not very smart . . . I would remind him [i.e., Christie] that I think what is dangerous in our country is to forget that we have a Bill of Rights, to forget about privacy, to give up on all of our liberty, to say “oh we’re going to catch terrorists, but you have to live in a police state” . . .
We fought the American Revolution over the fact that we didn’t want a warrant to apply to millions of people. The Fourth Amendment says it has to be a specific person, a place, and you have to name the items and you have to go to a judge and you have to say there’s probable cause. . . . And so people like the governor, who are, I guess, flippant about the Fourth Amendment and flippant about the Bill of Rights, they do an injustice to our soldiers, our soldiers who are laying their lives on the line for the Bill of Rights.
Bravo, Rand! After harpooning his whale, Paul tried to make peace, inviting the governor down to Washington for a beer at a pub near the Senate. But Christie rebuffed the offer, claiming he had too much to do in New Jersey. Paul said that he wanted to dial back the rhetoric on both sides, lest the Republicans descend into internecine warfare that can only help the Democrats. He told Fox News’ Neil Cavuto that he would support Christie if the latter became the Republican nominee in 2016. Christie responded by calling Paul’s initial remarks “out of whack” and “childish.”
The Kings and McCains of the world cannot conceive of an America disinterested in the Middle East: they are bound by mindsets and constituencies that demand our involvement there.
There’s no question that the “strain of libertarianism” Paul represents has establishment Republicans in a tizzy. John McCain, the senator who’s never seen a war he wouldn’t like to get into, has called Paul a “crazybird.” New York Congressman Peter King, a fervent supporter of the Patriot Act and the war in Iraq, told CNN that Paul “wants us to isolate ourselves, go back to a fortress America.” These men are indulging in scare tactics, comparing Paul and his supporters to the America First movement of the 1930s. They are wrong on two counts.
First, Paul has never advocated retreating into a fortress America. See for example his Feb. 6, 2013 speech to the Heritage Foundation. Second, of course, is the fact that no existential threat comparable to Nazism or Communism exists in the world today. The present bogeyman, radical Islam, is a danger only so long as we continue to meddle in the affairs of Islamic lands; absent that interference it would confine itself to infighting across the Ummah. It has no serious pretensions to world conquest (despite the nonsense put out by people such as William Federer); more importantly, it does not have the means to reach a position in the world comparable to that of Nazi Germany in 1940, or Soviet Russia in 1950.
The war with radical Islam is in reality a war of choice for us, though few Americans recognize this. The Kings and McCains of the world cannot conceive of an America disinterested in the Middle East: they are bound by mindsets and constituencies that demand our involvement there. The Paulistas face an uphill battle — actually, an impossible one, given the biases of the politicians, the national security apparatchiks, and the media — in persuading the nation that radical Islam’s war on America is largely of our own making. In the current environment it’s fairly easy for the interventionists to convince the citizenry, or a majority at least, that living in a proto-police state is the only alternative to devastating attacks like 9/11. The Paulistas are caught in a Catch-22. If they tell the truth to the American people, they will be smeared as isolationists. If they go along with the idea that radical Islam is determined to make war on us no matter what our policy in the Middle East may be, then it is all but impossible to attack the Patriot Act and programs such as the NSA’s blanket surveillance of Americans’ telephone and email communications. Only a fool would argue that lowering our guard against those who seek to kill us is a sound policy. Yet to persuade Americans that their country, through its actions both past and present, has played a major role in creating terrorism is a daunting task.
Only if we are stupid enough to launch a war of our own in the region — in Syria, or on Israel’s behalf in Iran — will radical Islam remain preoccupied with us.
My own view is that the Muslim world will become more and more involved in its own internal struggles — Sunni vs. Sunni as in Egypt, Shia vs. Sunni as in Bahrain, perhaps Shia vs. Shia at some point in Iran. Some of these struggles may erupt into actual warfare, as in the sectarian conflict (Sunni vs. Shia) now occurring in Syria (and extending into Lebanon and Iraq as well). The War on Terror will wither away eventually, as the Muslim world descends into chaos. Only if we are stupid enough to launch a war of our own in the region — in Syria, or on Israel’s behalf in Iran — will radical Islam remain preoccupied with us. The Muslim world should be left to work out its own destiny. Only be interfering do we endanger ourselves.
Of course, even if the War on Terror does end at some point, there’s no assurance that the US government will dismantle the domestic spying empire it has created. Certainly it’s unlikely that we will see a radical change in the War on Terror or the structure of the surveillance state by 2016. The US is not going to withdraw from the Middle East. Massive surveillance of US citizens’ communications will continue. The situation both here and in the Middle East will probably differ little from that which prevails today. Some cosmetic reforms of the surveillance state may be enacted. Bloodshed in the Middle East may increase. But fundamentally we will be stuck in the same mud.
There is no doubt that Rand Paul’s views on foreign entanglements resonate today with an electorate weary of spending its blood and treasure in far-off lands. According to the polls, over 60% of Americans are opposed to US intervention in Syria; over 70% want to keep hands off Egypt. But as we near the time for casting votes, a drumbeat of criticism will resound in the media and the halls of Congress, characterizing Paul’s views as out of the mainstream and dangerous. We will be told that the safety of the American people will be put at risk if these views prevail, and the volume will be turned up to whatever level is necessary to scare the voters. With Iraq and Afghanistan receding from the public memory, the concept of “better safe than sorry” will come increasingly to the fore. Paul will find himself opposed from left, right, and center when he tries to articulate his foreign policy views.
For it is certain, I believe, that he will run. Personally, I wish him well, despite the differences I have with him on some issues. But I fear that his effort to reach the presidency will be a quixotic one, perhaps even harming the cause he seeks to further.
What are Paul’s chances of winning the Republican nomination? First, let’s look at the competition. The names most bandied about, besides Paul’s, are those of Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, and of course Governor Christie. To this I would add Rick Santorum, who after all finished second to Romney in the battle for the 2012 Republican nomination. Neither Marco Rubio nor Ted Cruz will run, in my opinion. Neither is seasoned enough to be a serious presidential candidate (neither, though, was Barack Obama). Rubio would face opposition from the anti-immigration reform constituency, an important bloc of Republican voters. Some governors other than Christie may enter the race, but none can mount more than what would in effect be a favorite son candidacy.
If Rand is the standard bearer in 2016, the Goldwater experience will be repeated. Better to let Jeb and the Republican establishment take the hit.
Should both Ryan and Santorum enter the race, they will be competing for the same voters, mainly social conservatives, which would help Paul. But if only one of them chooses to run, then it becomes more difficult for a libertarian to win primaries and caucuses in a party that teems with social conservative activists. Paul can never get to the right of Ryan or Santorum on social issues.
The party establishment dreads the idea of either Paul or Santorum at the head of the ticket. It doesn’t believe Ryan can actually win. Are establishment thoughts then turning Chris Christie’s way?
You’d think so if you pay attention to the mainstream media, which loves the outspoken New Jersey governor. Reporters and analysts ensconced in offices from New York to California (but nowhere in between) seem to think Christie is a serious contender. Nothing could be further from the truth. Today’s Republican Party is not about to nominate a Northeasterner who slobbered over Barack Obama at the height of the 2012 campaign. Christie can win Republican primaries in the Northeast, and perhaps on the West Coast, but in the heartland he would find little support. If he runs he will come to the convention with a bloc of delegates, but one too small to give him the nomination.
Many in the Republican establishment — the leadership in Congress, big donors, globalists and national security honchos — would like Jeb Bush to run. Many Republicans believe that he alone can unite the party in 2016, and give them a reasonable chance of beating the Democrat nominee. And they’re almost certainly correct in their belief. Christie slots in as their choice for vice president. With Christie in the second spot it might be possible to pick off New Jersey and New Hampshire, states otherwise reliably blue in presidential years. That Christie would take the second spot, with Jeb at the head of the ticket, is certain. It’s his only real hope of becoming president some day.
If Bush seeks the nomination, and the field includes several candidates, he probably wins, just as Romney did in 2012. His conservative bona fides, though imperfect, are certainly better than the Mittster’s. At the same time he’s probably the one candidate with broad enough support to give the Republicans a shot at winning the presidency.
Paulistas should also remember that federal disaster relief is quite popular with the great majority of voters. So are other federal programs that many Republicans of the Tea Party variety would like to do away with.
What if, however, it’s a two-man race for the Republican nomination? Say Ryan and Santorum decide not to run. Say Christie cuts a deal with Bush to be his veep. Say Rand Paul is the one candidate out there competing with Bush for Republican votes. In such a scenario I can see the possibility of an insurgent Paul beating the establishment candidate. If Paul found himself battling Christie instead of Bush, his victory would be even likelier (to my mind, certain). Mind you, Paul needs to ratchet up his game. In the recent Paul-Christie debate, Paul made some rather foolish missteps, such as taking Christie to task for his “gimme gimme gimme” attitude toward federal dollars. Unfortunately for Rand, New Jersey sends more money to Washington than it gets in return, while in Rand’s home state of Kentucky the situation is the reverse. Paulistas should also remember that federal disaster relief is quite popular with the great majority of voters. So are other federal programs that many Republicans of the Tea Party variety would like to do away with.
Rand Paul is the most interesting politician in the country. He is intellectually superior to the next most interesting pol, Chris Christie. Christie’s views, however, are more easily understood by, and more palatable to, the majority of the electorate. If Paul runs for president in 2016, as I believe he will, he will enliven the debate to a far greater degree than his father did in 2012. He is a better speaker than his father, and better grounded in political realities. He could, under certain circumstances, sweep the Republicans off their feet and gain their nomination for president. But as interesting as that would be, I hope it doesn’t happen. If Rand is the standard bearer in 2016, the Goldwater experience will be repeated. Better to let Jeb and the Republican establishment take the hit. If healthy, Hillary Clinton will run, and she will defeat anyRepublican, be it Bush, Christie, or Paul. Sad to say, but Paul would fare worst of the three in a race against Hillary. The Paul agenda, if it is to advance, must do so incrementally. A resounding defeat in the 2016 presidential election can only hinder the progress of libertarian ideas.