A GOP Food Fight

The Christie-Paul spat shows the GOP has no clear idea of what the role of government should be.

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(Left) Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul speaks with reporters at the 114th annual VFW National Convention on Monday, July 22, 2013, in Louisville, Ky. (Right) New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during the Clinton Global Initiative America's meeting Friday, June 14, 2013, in Chicago, Ill.
Paul doubled down on his critique of Christie following a Nashville fundraising event over the weekend.

The spat between New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul defines, in a way, the fundamental issue that divides the country: that of the role of government in protecting, monitoring and bailing out the American public. 

Unfortunately for the GOP, the fight is between two Republicans who are being discussed as possible contenders in the 2016 presidential nomination race. Not only does the snit expose campaign-damaging, election-losing divisions within the party itself, but the fight has such a schoolyard quality to it that it doesn't much end up benefiting either possible candidate.

It started when Christie, the blunt-talking defender of all things New Jersey, questioned the approach by some of the party's ardent libertarians, of whom Paul is a leader. Such pols don't want to use government funds for much of anything, and especially not to help the needier in society. Said Christie:

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

You can name any number of people and he's [Paul's] one of them. 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

Fighting words, even by New Jersey standards. Paul responded without a trace of Southern gentility, saying:

They're precisely the same people who are unwilling to cut the spending, and their 'Gimme, gimme, gimme – give me all my Sandy money now.' Those are the people who are bankrupting the government and not letting enough money be left over for national defense.

Paul, to his credit, has been intellectually consistent on this theme, arguing against spending across the board. But it's a stretch to say the money Congress approved (after unprecedented opposition from non-northeastern Republicans) to help victims of the superstorm is somehow what broke the federal budget. That serious problem – and Paul should be commended for taking it seriously – has been building for decades, surely long before the storm left thousands homeless and traumatized. And it's the coldest way to argue against federal spending. If we can't help people who have been left with nothing through no fault of their own, whom can we help? Wall Street created its own mess and got bailed out anyway.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Christie was ready with the trump card, noting that New Jersey is, in fact, a "donor state," meaning that the state's residents send far more money in taxes to the federal government than they get back in services. Paul's old Kentucky home, meanwhile, is a beneficiary, getting, Christie noted, more than a buck and a half for every dollar it sends to Washington.

And here is where the GOP's troubles lie. It tends to be the more anti-government states that actually benefit from the redistribution of resources engineered by the federal government they so distrust. And it's the donor states that tend to lean more Democratic. In Mitt Romney's makers-and-takers view of the world, the "takers" are the ones lambasting the redistribution to begin with.

There's a serious and important conversation to be had over what we want our government to do, and how much we're willing to pay for it. But the tenor of the Paul-Christie fight doesn't anything more than remind voters that the GOP does not have a unified and clear idea of what that is.