The apex of Thursday night’s prime time GOP debate came as the discussion, never that robust, devolved into two contenders for the nation’s highest office shouting at each other, ironically over hugs.
Paul and Christie sparred over the post-9/11 perennial tensions between national security and civil liberties. Paul, who has adopted the fresh-faced libertarian banner is best known for his anti-drone strike filibuster, in the best tradition of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington style off-the-cuff populism, and opposition to the recently demolished Patriot Act.
Christie, who has harped almost exclusively thus far in the campaign on his prosecution of terrorists during his tenure as a Bush-appointed U.S. attorney, is exactly the opposite. In the past, he said Paul’s opposition to NSA bulk data collection endangers American security, even going so far as to suggest he should be called before Congress and held responsible if another attack occurs.
Sparks were sure to fly, and fly they did, with Rand literally screaming about the centrality of the Fourth Amendment to the American Revolution and the sanctity of the Bill of Rights. Christie characterized Paul’s assertion that he wanted more scrutiny of terrorists and less of average citizens as “a completely ridiculous answer.”
And the exchange disintegrated from there, with Paul shouting “Get a warrant,” Christie pontificating about “blowing hot air,” and making slimy, emotionalistic appeals about the hugs he got from the families of 9/11 victims.
There are no winners in this kind of discourse, amusing though it may be in the moment. It’s childish, venial and ultimately harmful to the tone and quality of American political discourse.
But, it is also significant because it embodies the current war within the Republican party. There are many, particularly amongst younger demographics more likely to vote if they feel an issue is exigent enough to their personal life, who vehemently agree that bulk data collection and retention is Orwellian and in direct violation of the Fourth Amendment.
There are also many who identify with the “Old Guard” wing of the party that the federal government’s viable national security interest makes surveillance well within their Constitutional purview.
This is a conflict that transcends a single issue. It is inherent in the recent kerfuffle over Ted Cruz calling Mitch McConnell a liar, it is behind the rise of the Tea Party and resistance from intransigent moderates like John McCain who feel comfortable calling their own base “crazies.” But most importantly, it is what lead to the milquetoast candidacy of Mitt Romney, whose deference and moderation led to another debate debacle, which helped hand another term to President Obama, despite his terrible record.
Much like the Christie-Paul spat, these tensions are not resolved, Ideologues from both sides merely fall back to shouting epithets at each other. And in doing so they appear petty and allow the debate to drift away from the tensions that are stymieing Republican victory in national races and policy fights.
There is nothing wrong with divisiveness so long as it is rooted in genuine, deep-seated differences in worldview and focus on the facts, not whether a person’s character is more or less valid based on their beliefs. The overwhelming point of having a primary is to work out these differences, allow the voters to assess whose vision they like best and let the party move in the direction of the majority of its base. However, there still needs to be room for dissent. Otherwise, the party as a whole runs the risk of becoming fascistic.
Though there were no winners in the NSA sparring, Christie definitely came off as more boorish because of his classification of Paul’s principle-rooted position as “completely ridiculous.” Paul’s manner was aggressive and overbearing, but it was at least buoyed by a passionate belief in the cause he has championed, somewhat inconsistently, in his Senate tenure.
In their desire to win national office, Republicans cannot merely write off minority opinions as fringe because they are a liability with the greater populace. Otherwise, they run the risk of losing their ideological foundation and becoming hollow, undoing any good that might be attained in gaining political power.