From immigration and national security policies to how far to take the fight against Obamacare — which the Republicans are practically unanimous in hating — major players inside the Republican Party are deeply divided against one another in unusually public fashion

“We have an identity crisis, and you see the identity crisis playing out through all the various fissures,” said Ron Bonjean, a veteran Republican strategist. “It could take several election cycles until we actually come to consensus again. Our party may have to go to the brink of disaster before we pull back and realize what we have to do.”…

“There’s got to be a better way of dealing with the party’s problems than having our better-known leaders out there in open combat,” Galen said. “This could metastasize into — it’s not going to be a war, but it could be an ongoing conflict that makes everything harder for everything.”

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There’s a reason that Christie and Paul went back and forth (and then back and forth again) at each other. And that reason is simple: It’s good politics for both of them.

For Christie, it affirms his speak-truth-to-power persona while also staking out ground as a natural heir to the Republican party of Ronald Reagan. For Paul, it makes clear that he is a different sort of Republican, one who won’t follow the same old playbook that has kept the party out of the White House for what will end up being at least eight years.

And, it’s far from a zero-sum game for the duo. While Christie and Paul are likely to seek the Republican nomination in 2016, the sort of GOP voter they are going for just isn’t the same. People who liked Paul before this clash will love him now. And those who didn’t, won’t. Same goes for Christie.

While, eventually, they might have to face off against one another in a one-on-one for the nomination, that’s a ways down the road.

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More than anything else, what the firefight revealed was the extent to which Paul and Christie — two pols who have thrived on the appeal of their raw authenticity — have placed drastically different bets on the future of the Republican Party. And as they approach the start of the long 2016 campaign, both men are so deeply confident that they have the political and ideological high ground, that each can scarcely understand how his adversary could be making such an epic miscalculation…

Over the long haul, any Christie presidential campaign would want to be perceived as tough on defense, a traditional weak point for governors seeking the Oval Office, though several Republicans in Christie’s orbit strenuously played down the notion that his jabs at the Paul cohort were part of a deliberate 2016 strategy.

Paul, meanwhile, knows he must clear the commander-in-chief test as he crafts himself into a national candidate. The libertarian-leaning senator was attacked in his first campaign – back in 2010 – as a national security squish whose devotion to civil liberties was at odds with fighting terrorism…

“I think last December and January was an eye-opening experience for Chris Christie in terms of different elements of the party that he didn’t realize were there,” said [Peter] King.

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Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, couldn’t believe it when he heard that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., adopted the pose of an undecided voter when asked about a hypothetical match-up between Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“Wait, you’re joking right?” Lee asked when told, during a press conference Wednesday evening at the Young Americans for Liberty convention, that McCain told the New Republic that “it’s gonna be a tough choice” if Paul and Clinton win their respective party nominations in 2016…

Paul rejected the “isolationist” tag that McCain applied to him, noting that he supported the invasion of Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

He also took aim at McCain’s foreign policy views. “There are two polar extremes to foreign policy: One is that we’re nowhere, any of the time, and one that we’re everywhere, all the time,” Paul told reporters. “There are people within our caucus, we won’t name any names, who are very close to the ‘everywhere all the time” [position].”

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[W]hat the suspicious get is not the distinctions between surveillance programs but the sheer accumulation of them: The NSA, IRS, and FDH all blur together as “the government.” The government is in your bookkeeping, in your e-mails, in your prostate. Had George III been that omnipresent, there would be no United States.

But the real reason why there are fewer defenders of their programs than Andy would like is the subject he tackles in his excellent books: the ideological faintheartedness of the United States. In this struggle, our enemies hide in plain sight, but Western governments will not confront them in plain sight…

And, in a broader sense, the national-security Right is a shrinking club because America has proven an ineffectual intervener. In Afghanistan, the Taliban support a bigoted, misogynist sharia state run by theocrats with ties to global terrorism, whereas America and its allies support a bigoted, misogynist sharia state run by duplicitous kleptocrats with ties to druglords and pederasts. That’s not a distinction worth twelve years of blood and treasure, and it has discredited the broader cause and its impositions on the home front. The Taliban will soon enough be back in Kabul, but Americans will be shuffling shoeless through the airports of Cleveland and Des Moines unto the end of time.

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[T]he Democratic Party can run virtually the same campaign that they ran against Romney in 2012 against Paul in 2016, substituting the former Massachusetts governor’s personal ties to wealth with Paul’s ideological attachment to libertarianism. They will depict Paul’s as a form of “no-government conservatism” on steroids. His opposition to many aspects of how America prosecutes the war on terror – lent bipartisan legitimacy by virtue of their being utilized by both the Bush and Obama administrations – could also become a net negative in a general election. Paul’s mistrust of many aspects of U.S. defense policy may win over some traditionally Democratic young voters while ceding as many adults and seniors to the Democrats. His candidacy would have the added catastrophic effect of surrendering the issue of national security to Democrats for a generation or more.

Christie, meanwhile, can make the issue of national defense a net benefit for his campaign. Given the likelihood that the Republican primaries are going to be dominated by libertarian-leaning insurgent candidates, Christie – and the Republican Party as a whole – is going to be forced to embrace a non-interventionist posture and a more reformist policy relating to domestic intelligence gathering programs than the governor might be personally comfortable with. In not going over the libertarian cliff entirely, though, he neutralizes what could be a threat to the GOP’s dominance over senior voters by ceding the issue of a strong national defense to Clinton…

In private, Democrats will concede what the early polls confirm: Christie is the candidate they fear most. Their best hope is that, between now and 2016, Republicans run Christie out of the party. Or, at least, out of the running to become their next presidential nominee. Judging by the conservative blogosphere’s reaction to the Paul-Christie kerfuffle this week, Democrats just may get their wish and another eight years in the White House.

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The more fundamental GOP divide is over foreign aid and other manifestations of our role as the world’s leading power. The Paulites, pining for the splendid isolation of the 19th century, want to leave the world alone on the assumption that it will then leave us alone.

Which rests on the further assumption that international stability — open sea lanes, free commerce, relative tranquillity — comes naturally, like the air we breathe. If only that were true. Unfortunately, stability is not a matter of grace. It comes about only by Great Power exertion.

In the 19th century, that meant the British navy, behind whose protection the United States thrived. Today, alas, Britannia rules no waves. World order is maintained by American power and American will. Take that away and you don’t get tranquillity. You get chaos.

That’s the Christie-McCain position. They figure that the country doesn’t need two parties of retreat. Paul’s views, more measured and moderate than his fringy father’s, are still in the minority among conservatives, but gathering strength. Which is why Christie’s stroke — defending and thus seizing the party’s more traditional internationalist consensus — was a signal moment in the run-up to the 2016 campaign. The battle lines are drawn.

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