Health, Security Disputes Reveal Republican Divide

The real divide in the Republican Party isn’t one of ideology so much as it is one of electoral realism.

Republican governor Chris Christie of New Jersey addresses a press conference in Trenton, October 4, 2011 (Governor's Office/Tim Larsen

Less than a year after Mitt Romney failed to win the American presidency for the Republican Party, the divide between the party’s centrist establishment and conservative purists has widened. But disputes over health care and national security policies do not necessarily break down along ideological lines. The one thing they have in common is that they pit Republicans who can win national elections against those who can’t.

Late last month, the combative Republican governor of New Jersey Chris Christie chastised Kentucky’s senator Rand Paul who had been highly critical of the National Security Agency’s surveillance of American citizens’ communications. Speaking at the Aspen Institute in Colorado, he characterized Rand’s libertarianism as a “very dangerous thought” and urged the legislator to “come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and orphans” of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that inspired counterterrorism policies that libertarians believe infringe on privacy rights.

Rand responded by accusing the New Jersey leader of demanding pork-barrel spending from Washington when his state is actually a net contributor to the federal budget. Christie has also been successful in reducing his state’s deficit, cutting both spending and taxes and introducing school reforms that are popular on the right. Surveys suggest, however, that in spite of his nationwide appeal to both Democrats and Republicans, the party’s activist base mistrusts him, in part because Christie, whose state was devastated by “superstorm” Sandy last year, heralded President Barack Obama’s hurricane reconstruction efforts just before the presidential election.

A fiscal conservative, Christie nevertheless seems more in tune with his party’s hawkish national security wing and is agnostic about gay marriage. Rand, though a libertarian, opposes gay marriage as well as military adventurism abroad.

Like the Christie-Rand feud, an internal split over how best to derail President Obama’s signature health reform law can be seen as a battle between the party’s establishment and newcomers but the ideological division is actually less clear.

The effort to defund the law is spearheaded by “Tea Party” senators Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Mike Lee of Florida, Texas and Utah, respectively, who are willing to risk a complete shutdown of the federal government to prevent “Obamacare” from being implemented. Party leaders in both the House of Representatives and the Senate have said little about this strategy — which is bound to fail as Democrats in the Senate, where they have the majority, are highly unlikely to vote for repealing Obama’s defining legislative achievement — probably for fear of alienating conservative voters.

Mitt Romney, who doesn’t have to worry about upsetting voters anymore, did question the strategy in New Hampshire on Tuesday where he said the effort was driven by “emotion” rather than a rational assessment of what’s in the party’s best interests. “I’m afraid that in the final analysis, Obamacare would get its funding, our party would suffer in the next elections and the people of the nation would not be happy,” he said.

His vice presidential candidate in the last election, Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, seemed to agree on CBS News’ Face the Nation talk show this weekend, although he chose his words more carefully. “Rather than sort of swinging for the fences and trying to take this entire law out with discretionary spending, I think there are more effective ways of achieving that goal,” he said, after pointing out that the bulk of “Obamacare” spending is mandatory. A government shutdown therefore, which affects only discretionary spending, wouldn’t sink the law altogether.

Ryan’s indisputable fiscal conservatism and strong opposition to the president’s health plan endeared him to Tea Party voters — which was one of the reasons Romney nominated him for the vice presidency. But he is also an experienced legislator, unlike Cruz, Lee and Rubio, who recognizes the pitfalls of putting ideology before party interests.

Ryan isn’t any less a conservative for refusing to sign up to a losing strategy. He voted for dozens of laws that would have defunded “Obamacare” — which all stranded in the Senate. Republicans will only ever undo the health law if they retake control of the upper chamber and preferably the presidency as well.

The real divide between the likes of Christie and Ryan on the one hand and Cruz, Lee, Rand and Rubio on the other isn’t so much one of ideology as one of realism. The former realize they have to win national elections to govern conservatively whereas the latter prioritize ideological purity over electoral success. Hardline Republican voters may sympathize with the latter but it doesn’t do them any good.

Except for major wins in the House of Representatives in 2010, Republicans have lost three out of the last four last elections. Someone like Christie could reverse that trend in 2016, even if the highly popular former secretary of state Hillary Clinton is the Democrats’ candidate. Cruz, Rand and Rubio, who are all rumored to have presidential aspirations of their own, won’t.

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