A rift over national security is developing in the early stages of the Republican Party’s next presidential campaign, pitting libertarians who question government overreach against defenders of a more hawkish approach on national security formed after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
During a forum Thursday night in Aspen, Colo., New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pointed to a “strain of libertarianism” coursing through both parties as a “very dangerous thought” more than a decade after the Sept. 11 attacks. Christie was asked whether he was referring to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a potential presidential candidate who has been at the forefront of the party’s libertarian wing.
“You can name any number of people, and he’s one of them,” said Christie, noting his state suffered the second-most casualties in the hijacked airliner attacks on New York and Washington, which killed nearly 3,000 people. “These esoteric, intellectual debates — I want them to come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and the orphans and have that conversation. And they won’t, because that’s a much tougher conversation to have.”
Paul responded Friday on Twitter, saying Christie “worries about the dangers of freedom. I worry about the danger of losing that freedom. Spying without warrants is unconstitutional.”
For Republicans, the national-security debate offers a window into an evolving party that nearly a decade ago re-elected President George W. Bush, in part, on the basis of his administration’s hard-line response to the terror attacks and use of tools provided by the USA Patriot Act, which gave the administration the powers to search records and conduct roving wiretaps in pursuit of terrorists. It also serves notice that whoever hopes to claim the GOP nomination in 2016 may need to fuse factions within the party on national security.
The exchange followed a fight this week in Congress over the National Security Agency’s collection of hundreds of millions of U.S. phone records, where libertarian-leaning conservatives and liberal Democrats sought to undo the NSA program that they contend is an affront to civil liberties. The House narrowly defeated the attempt to restrict the surveillance, with some Republicans questioning whether their adversaries had forgotten the lessons of 2001.
The House vote came in the weeks after former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden leaked classified documents that exposed the government’s secret surveillance activities. And it followed Paul’s nearly 13-hour filibuster in March over President Barack Obama’s pick to lead the CIA, a fight that focused attention on the president’s use of aerial drones to kill suspected terrorists and concerns the unmanned aircraft could be used in the United States to target suspects who are American citizens.
Republicans have said the libertarian strain within their party has been galvanized by what they call a large, more intrusive government under Obama, pointing to the health care overhaul, probes by the IRS into political groups and the Snowden affair.
Republican consultants based in early presidential voting states said there is an undeniable growing strain of libertarianism within the GOP that has already begun to reshape the political debate as candidates begin to jockey for position three years before the next presidential contest.