Christie’s Tough Talk Shows GOP Divide

The party is split between those who want to win, and those who want to take a stand

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Josh Reynolds / AP

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks to fellow Republicans during the Republican National Committee summer meeting in Boston on Aug. 15, 2013

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie criticized some in the GOP on Thursday for emphasizing ideas over winning, turning heads with blunt talk interpreted by nearly everyone in the room as attacks on Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.

But Christie’s remarks, during a speech at a Republican National Committee meeting in Boston, were more than a critique of his would-be 2016 rivals — they highlighted the battle lines in today’s Republican Party that cross ideology and region.

“We need to stop navel-gazing,” Christie said in the closed-door speech, of which attendees provided recordings to TIME. “There’s nothing wrong with our principles. We need to focus on winning again. There’s too much at stake for this to be an academic exercise. We need to win and govern with authority and courage.”

It’s increasingly clear, RNC members say, that today’s GOP is fractured most notably not by religious fervor, fiscal policy or libertarian commitment, but simply between those who want to win, and those who want to take a stand.

The divisions manifest themselves everywhere from primary fights that marginalize moderates to the halls of Congress, where a cadre of House Republicans have blocked nearly all legislation from proceeding this session. House Speaker John Boehner gave voice to those tactics last month in an interview with Face the Nation on CBS.

“We should not be judged on how many new laws we create,” he told host Bob Schieffer. “We ought to be judged on how many laws that we repeal.”

Former President Ronald Reagan is said to have coined the axiom, “The person who agrees with you 80% of the time is a friend and an ally — not a 20% traitor.” For Republicans, embracing that maxim is a life-or-death issue. The fight is for the identity of the Republican Party — whether it is a vehicle of ideological persuasion or winning elections — the outcome of which will determine the party’s electoral viability. Sensing trouble down the line at the RNC’s quarterly meeting, many members raised concerns with some in the party’s all-or-nothing approach.

Glenn McCall, the South Carolina national committeeman, told TIME he was frustrated by the House Republican approach — including the uncompromising stances taken by members of his own state’s delegation.

“I’m concerned about several of our Congressmen,” McCall says. “Trey Gowdy and Mick Mulvaney, really intelligent and thoughtful guys, and I don’t want to see them get disenchanted with that whole structure. You have ideas, and there’s just no motivation to move forward.”

“There are good people in Congress, but I don’t think we have enough folks putting forth good ideas,” McCall adds. “Yeah, they talk about them and go on talk radio. Put something out there. Put it in writing. Get support and push it through.”

On Wednesday, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich took congressional Republicans to task for failing to offer up an alternative to President Barack Obama’s health care law instead of just repeatedly voting to repeal it.

“We are caught up right now in a culture, and you see it every single day, where as long as we are negative and as long as we are vicious and as long as we can tear down our opponent, we don’t have to learn anything,” he said, according to CNN’s Peter Hamby. “We have to do the homework.”

Christie followed that up on Thursday with the admonition that “we are not a debating society. We are a political operation that needs to win.”

“See, I’m in this business to win,” Christie added. “I’m in it to win. I think that we have some folks who believe that our job is to be college professors. College professors are fine I guess. Being a college professor is — they basically spout out ideas, but nobody ever does anything about them. For our ideas to matter we have to win. Because if we don’t win, we don’t govern. And if we don’t govern, all we do is shout into the wind.”

Iowa GOP chairman A.J. Spiker, a co-chair of former Representative Ron Paul’s campaign in his state, said the party’s divisions have moved beyond ideology to a debate over tactics.

“I wouldn’t say it is the liberty movement vs. the Establishment or Christian right vs. the Establishment,” he says. “It’s two camps: it’s the camp that wants the party to advance its principles, and it’s the camp that’s more interested in being elected and maintaining power.”

“There is a large segment of the Republican Party that wants us to stand up and show some bold leadership on these things,” Spiker adds. “The other side says we can’t or we’ll lose. I say if we can’t take stands, why were we sent here?”

McCall, speaking highly of the effort of the Senate Gang of Eight on immigration, said while the bill isn’t perfect, Republicans need to do something.

“I hope the House will take up their bill, or come up with their own,” he says. “Let’s do something.”

On the other side of the spectrum are Republicans who stand ready to oppose what they see as action just for the sake of action, a faction supporting Iowa Representative Steve King and his pitched opposition to immigration reform.

“If the House passes some kind of immigration bill that has a path to citizenship, it’s not going to be helpful at all,” says Iowa national committeeman Steve Scheffler.

Tut-tutting Boehner’s recent condemnation of King’s heated immigration rhetoric, Scheffler adds: “When he called out Steve King — it was just totally unacceptable to do that.”