Artur Davis: What The Next Christie/Paul Fight Should Look Like

Having written favorably about Chris Christie in the past, and having taken to task Rand Paul on other occasions, it won’t be surprising that I lean toward the governor and not the senator in the much discussed back and forth between the two over national security and electronic surveillance. I am also in the camp that views an internal dust-up between presidential level Republicans as a good thing that promises that the party is headed toward a 2016 field that is decidedly less one-note than the one in 2012.

In fact, it’s worth hoping that the conversation between the two current Republican front-runners (as subject to change as Cory Booker’s claim that he won’t run for president in 2016) rapidly expands to encompass the domestic side of the equation. To date, it hasn’t, and the vague, far from congruent, alignments of center-right conservatives and libertarians around various economic and social issues has made this week’s tensions seem artificially stark. In fairness, the non-congruent, hazy nature of these domestic divisions has prevented any coalescing into the kind of binary lines that might lead to more clarity.

So, rather than a coherent libertarian v. center-right debate, the 60 percent of Republicans who endorse some revamp of the party have splintered into social moderates who prioritize expanding the party’s appeal to suburban professional women and 18 to 29 year olds; right leaning populists who want to recast the party as a skeptic of crony capitalism and oversized banks, and who reject amnesty for illegal immigrants as a threat to downscale workers; establishment types who want to revive the Bush vision of “compassionate conservatism” and pro-immigration reform; social conservatives who also see merits in amnesty and more emphasis on poverty and education; to libertarians who want to reconcile a move to the center on gay marriage (although generally not abortion) with a hard right turn on entitlements and domestic spending. And the soft borders between these camps mean that in some respects, a Paul has as much of a claim to a reformer mantle as a Jeb Bush.

davis_artur-1It is not altogether clear where Christie falls on that grid. And to be sure, for the same pragmatic reasons that Republicans are transitioning swiftly from “Hillary never would have made Obama’s mistakes” to criticisms of Benghazi and the old Clintonian penchant for influence peddling, liberals can be counted on to temper their praise of Christie as a “responsible adult” with jabs at his resistance to gay marriage and his “demonization” of teachers. For equally clear tactical reasons related to nomination politics, Christie would be foolish to wear the label as the moderate trying to upend the conservative grip on the party. (In fact, one assumes that Christie appreciates that his long standing toughness on anti-terror tactics also shores up his conservative credentials in a party where to most, Edward Snowden resembles a subversive more than a patriot).

But there are reasons to think, and to wish, that Christie offers a potential of shaping at least some of the disparate elements of reform into the kind of conservative vision I have praised: one that takes middle class economic anxiety seriously, that is not allergic to market based strategies to address the chronically poor and the uninsured, and that treats a more cohesive, less fractured society as a valid goal of the political right. Some of that promise is rooted in a gubernatorial record that has been impressively attentive to education reform, and that whether he ends up being wrong or right on Medicaid expansion, at least acknowledges the moral dilemma of a low wage poor population that lack health care through no fault of their own. And some of the case for Christie as the best prospective champion of reform is admittedly derived from atmospherics, like his penchant for rebuking some of the less becoming traits on the right, i.e., a NRA web attack ad that featured Barack Obama’s daughters.

Between an actual governing record that has done conservatism proud while managing to achieve a legislative agenda, and a willingness to dress down the right’s excesses without denigrating rank and file conservatives, there are the outlines of a profile that could plausibly unravel the Democratic coalition without shedding very many Republicans in return. Almost as consequential, there is an early framework for a post-Great Recession GOP that could articulate what renewal looks like in the aftermath of a half decade of stagnant growth.

And as incomplete as the details are for that kind of Republicanism, it likely offers a far more attractive political alternative than a libertarianism that distrusts public purpose, and revels in a conspiracy obsessed vision that seems alien outside the hardest edges of the Republican base.


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