GOP Goes Public With Long-Brewing Foreign Policy Civil War

For years the Republican Party has fractured over foreign policy, but libertarians and neoconservatives, while vehemently disagreeing on substance, tried to project an air of party cohesion. Those days are over.

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announces to a gathering Monday, July 22, 2013, in Brick Township, N.J., that about 2,700 New Jersey homeowners will get federal grants to elevate homes damaged by Superstorm Sandy. Homeowners will be able to get up to $30,000 each.

The long-delayed GOP foreign policy civil war is finally here.

For years the Republican Party has fractured over foreign policy, but libertarians and neoconservatives, while vehemently disagreeing on substance, tried to project an air of party cohesion. Those days are over. “We ignored them and then tried to placate them,” said one hawkish Senate Republican foreign policy aide about the libertarians. “If we don’t move now [to counterattack], it may be too late in 2016.”

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s comments Thursday evening at a gathering of the Republican Governors Association in Aspen, Colo. calling libertarianism “a very dangerous thought” marked an opening salvo of the fight for the Republican Party’s identity in an age where a war-weary public wants to focus on the home front. On one side are libertarians like Sen. Rand Paul and others in the Tea Party. On the other, more mainstream conservatives like Christie, Arizona Sen. John McCain and New York Rep. Pete King.

It wasn’t always this way. For years, as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan divided the American public and drove a wedge into the GOP, national Republicans largely ignored the rising libertarian movement. When Paul’s father, former Rep. Ron Paul, ran for president in 2008 and 2012, he was often treated as a sideshow — commanding a fraction of the GOP primary electorate and being unable to drive the national conversation from the fringes of primary debates. And indeed Republicans never seriously addressed the rise of libertarianism within the Tea Party on a national level, as Mitt Romney struggled to connect with that segment of the electorate.

When the younger Paul took to the floor of the Senate in March for a 13-hour filibuster on drone policies, mainstream Republicans tried appeasement. Paul had the backing of fourteen colleagues, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus encouraged the entire party to rise and support his efforts. Only a few of the most ardent security hawks, like Sen. John McCain of Arizona, raised concerns as Paul temporarily blocked the nomination of Obama’s pick for CIA director, John Brennan, over the administration’s refusal to describe its drone policies to the public.

In many ways, the Republican Party is more fractured today than it was when Mitt Romney lost in November. But the severity of Christie’s comments — coming on the heels of a contentious House vote on funding for the National Security Agency’s controversial spying programs — marks a new era of intra-party turmoil.

Asked by New York Times reporter Jonathan Martin about the vote, Christie, a former federal prosecutor, invoked the memory of the attacks of September 11, 2011. “I want them to come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and the orphans and have that conversation,” he said, specifically including Paul when prodded.

“It’s not a debate not worth having,” Christie continued, “but I think we need to be very cautious about how joyful we are over the idea that somehow we are going to shift this baby way back. Because 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.”

Democrats are hardly immune from the divisions between privacy activists and national security hawks, but don’t face nearly the same divisions as Republicans. That the National Security Agency bill, opposed by Speaker of the House John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, even made it to the floor is a testament to how powerful the libertarian caucus has become. GOP House members split 94-134 against cutting funding for the NSA programs as the amendment, offered by Republican Rep. Justin Amash, failed 217-205.

While there is no coordinated effort to try to counteract the growing influence of the libertarians in the GOP, opponents have turned up the volume on their critiques. McCain has relentlessly assailed Paul’s ideology over the past several months in strikingly personal terms, calling Paul and Sen. Ted Cruz “wacko birds,” before apologizing.

With Paul and Christie sharing aspirations for a run for the White House, this struggle previews the 2016 debates. “Christie’s confronting what he sees as an esoteric and philosophical approach to policy formulation with one more rooted in action instead of ideologue,” said former Romney aide Kevin Madden. “Depending on how the 2016 field fills out, you’re likely to see the debates and party battles break more along these lines. The legislators and the executives. The thinkers and the doers.”

Picking a fight with libertarians also provides a dose of conservative redemption for the governor, who has come under criticism from Republicans for his outspoken gratitude toward Obama for federal assistance after Hurricane Sandy and his equally sharp words for GOP lawmakers for delaying disaster relief. “It’s a great fight for Christie,” said former Bush strategist Mark McKinnon. “It allows him to move right and take on Paul who will likely be leading in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.”

But Christie advisor Michael DuHaime downplayed the significance of the comments. “I would suggest people not to overanalyze it,” he told TIME. “He was asked a question on NSA and answered it. He was US Attorney in NJ for seven years, and he has more direct experience with terrorism than just about everyone engaged in this debate. He got a question and answered it.”

But the movement is larger than Christie and McCain. Last week King, the former House intelligence committee chairman and one of the House’s toughest national security hawks, floated the notion that he would run for president. Such a candidacy by the lawmaker unknown outside of Long Island and Washington would likely be focused on pushing back against the libertarian ideology than winning delegates.

Liz Mair, a Republican consultant, said in the wake of Christie’s comments Thursday, “I feel like he’s giving me little reason to keep looking at the likely moderate in what I assume will be the 2016 field.”