The GOP National Security Debate of 2016 Begins

The significance of Chris Christie's clash with Rand Paul.

paul.christieThe contest for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 will include a great debate about the party’s direction on foreign policy and national security, while the DNC candidates are on the same page. N.J. Governor Chris Christie just clashed with Kentucky Senator Rand Paul after saying that he and his libertarian trend are “dangerous.”

As I noted on July 16, the emphasis on national polls is misplaced. The important ones are in Iowa and New Hampshire and Paul leads in both, making him the frontrunner. Now, he also leads nationally with 16% according to a PPP poll. With his strengthening position Paul should have been expecting criticism from his rivals, and Christie has stepped up to throw the hardest punch.

Christie is framing himself as tougher on national security than Paul, saying that Paul’s “strain of libertarianism…is a very dangerous thought.” The specific area of disagreement is the National Security Agency’s controversial intelligence-gathering programs. Paul’s office replied by referring to him as “(Crist)ie,” using the disagreement to reinforce criticism that Christie is too moderate.

The disagreement helps Paul in the primaries, but helps Christie’s general election prospects. About 50% of Americans support the NSA programs and 44% disapprove. However, among Republicans, 50% are against them and 44% support them.

Senator Paul is also under attack from New York Rep. Peter King for his support for NSA leaker Edward Snowden. Paul may also be criticized for introducing legislation cutting off aid to Egypt in reaction to the overthrow of Egyptian President Morsi. He has always opposed aid to Egypt, but the timing will be seen by Egyptians as proof that the U.S. is on the side of the Muslim Brotherhood.

King says that Hillary Clinton would “destroy” Paul and Texas Senator Ted Cruz because of their “isolationist” positions. Christie, the most electable candidate at this point, has a slew of polls he can use to drive this point home.

Nationally, Clinton is ahead of Paul by 8%, but is only 1% ahead of Christie. Paul ties Biden, but Christie leads him by 6% (another poll has him with a 11% lead). In Ohio, Christie ties Clinton and defeats Biden by a whopping 18%. Paul loses to Clinton by 3% and his margin over Biden is only half of Christie’s. In Virginia, Christie is 5% behind Clinton, while Paul has a 14% gap to fill. Biden defeats Paul by 7%, but loses to Christie by 8%.

By attacking Paul, Christie has opened the door for his rivals to scrutinize his own national security record. The Clarion Project has repeatedly documented his associations with Islamists. Last November, it was revealed that Christie had four Islamists on his Muslim outreach committee, including the Hamas-linked Imam Qatanani, whom Christie defends against the Department of Homeland Security. Christie's Senate appointment is friendly with these Islamists, something that only Canadian TV covered. Christie attacks his critics on this issue as bigots."

The second tier of GOP candidates is Christie, Rep. Paul Ryan and former Governor Jeb Bush, each with 13%. Cruz also fits into this category with 12% and Senator Marco Rubio has 10%. As my last analysis showed, Rubio’s fall is a big development in the race. He is now in 5th place in Iowa, 4th place in New Hampshire and 6th nationally.

Rubio will try to regain some of his support by criticizing Paul on national security and foreign policy, but, like Christie, he has holes in his own record. He stood with Senator McCain when he blasted the members of Congress that pointed out the Islamist associations of Huma Abedin, the wife of New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, who recently received a donation from an Al-Jazeera lobbyist.

Rubio went beyond McCain’s scope of criticism, and dismissed the congressmen’s concerns about the U.S. Muslim Brotherhood altogether. The Abedin angle was only one part of the letters on the topic. Rubio said, “I can tell you that I don’t share the feelings that are in that letter.”

The offensive against both Paul and Christie (and possibly Rubio) on national security is going to come from the third tier candidates: Former Senator Rick Santorum, who registers 4% nationally, Rep. King and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. Two other possible candidates are Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker; Governor Bobby Jindal, who ties Santorum at 4%; and Governor Susana Martinez, who is at 2%, but she isn’t showing interest in running.

The Democratic lineup remains stable, with Clinton dominating and Biden taking her place if she chooses not to run. Senator Elizabeth Warren is in a distant third. Governor Deval Patrick, who has courted Islamists, but replaced an Islamist imam at an interfaith service following the Boston bombings, has ruled out a presidential run. Senator Amy Klobuchar is now putting her name out there with a trip to Iowa.

Of course, the race is in its very earliest stages and a lot will change, with Rubio’s dramatic decline serving as an example. However, this debate isn’t just about 2016. Unlike the Democrats, there is a visible fracturing of the party into two camps on national security and foreign affairs issues. The Republican Party is headed towards a fork in the road and only one path can be taken.

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