GOP’s 2016 Divide: Pragmatists vs. Ideologues
Policy + Politics

GOP’s 2016 Divide: Pragmatists vs. Ideologues


Over the last two weeks, a clear line has been drawn in the battle for the GOP presidential nomination – and it’s pragmatism versus ideology.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the blustery, hard-charging realist, is tired of the philosophical navel gazing. At a Republican National Committee conference in Boston, he sent a not so subtle message to uncompromising ideologues: Tea Party types are playing to lose, prizing self-righteousness over practical results.

“We are not a debating society,” Christie said in a Thursday speech. “We are a political operation that needs to win.”

But a kind of debating society did break out among three Tea Party types with presidential dreams. Kentucky Sen. Rand Pau —a target of Christie’s remarks—blasted Obamacare on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) stopped by the Iowa Family Summit to preach about the evils of Washington. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum  spoke at the same evangelical Christian event, in addition to shaking hands at the Iowa State Fair.


“I think you certainly have the beginning tremors of the 2016 quake in the Republican Party,”said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist.

The divide reflects an internal feud that has paralyzed Republicans on Capitol Hill for the past year, with House leaders sheepishly pulling votes on bills about taxes, tweaks to Obamacare, and appropriations that emerged as wedge issues. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is widely perceived as powerless, repeating his mantra that the chamber will simply “work its will” on the fiscal 2014 budget and immigration reform.
Even though primary voting begins more than two years from now—with the Iowa Caucus scheduled for Jan. 5, 2016—this turf war over the identity of the GOP has become the hot issue.

Christie already appears to be building the infrastructure for a national campaign under the guise of seeking a second term this year as New Jersey governor, The New York Times reported Sunday. For his part, Paul portrays Christie as a relic of an older, mid-Atlantic Republican Party, out of touch with its southern and western base.

"Look, the party in the Northeast is shrinking almost down to nothing, they need to be looking to people with new and different ideas who will attract young, independent, even Democrats to our party," Paul told "Fox News Sunday."

The irony is that each side needs support from the other. Christie has proven that it’s possible to fortify a Republican outpost in a state that leans Democratic. But he must convince conservative voters living in safe Republican territory that his pragmatism is a virtue.


Cruz, Paul, and Santorum must similarly prove that they can convert independent voters—who are squeamish about the drastic spending cuts and absolutist positions on abortion and gay marriage—to GOP loyalists.

How the schism gets settled will likely depend on the logistics of who wins the Republican presidential nomination—and the fate that awaits them in the general.

The Pew Research Center released a survey at the end of July showing that Tea Partiers compose 37 percent of Republicans, but 49 percent of primary voters. So the primaries are weighted against Christie, even if he would theoretically do better against a Democrat in November. Multiple polls show that Christie has crossover appeal with independents and Democrats. An amazing 45 percent of voters for President Obama last year approve of Christie, according to a May survey by Public Policy Polling.

The early primaries last cycle in relatively low-population states such as New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina that encouraged swings to the right, make it tougher to galvanize support from more moderate Republicans from Mid-Atlantic States.

What the 2012 presidential race showed was that trying to split the difference between technocratic know-how and conservative zealotry proved a losing strategy for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

His personal brand was based on his fortune from running a private equity firm, an experience Romney claimed would qualify him to repair the economy. But in the primary, he embraced virtually every major conservative position – including novel ideas such as “self-deportation” for illegal immigrants.

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus told Business Insider on Friday that Romney’s self-deportation remark was “horrific” for outreach to Latinos and independent voters. "I don't think it has anything to do with our party,” Priebus said. “When a candidate makes those comments, obviously, it hurts us."

Christie is banking that his practical approach to governance, everyman temper and love of Bruce Springsteen can resuscitate the GOP. Republicans, he says, need to demonstrate to voters that they know how to govern and get things done, not serve as impediments or naysayers to necessary action – as when most House Republicans opposed emergency assistance to New Jersey and the rest of the Northeast battered by Superstorm Sandy late last year.

Christie hammers traditional Republican opponents such as public employee unions, but he won endorsements from 24 building-trade unions. His approval rating among Garden State voters—who will likely re-elect him to a second term this November—is 70 percent, according to a recent poll by Kean University.

“I’m in this business to win,” Christie told the Boston gathering of Republicans on Thursday.  “I don’t know why you’re in it…I think that we have some folks that believe that our job is to be college professors. Now college professors are fine, I guess. You know, college professors basically spout out ideas that nobody ever does anything about. For our ideas to matter, we have to win because, if we don’t win, we don’t govern. And if we don’t govern, all we do is shout into the wind. So I am going to do anything I need to do to win!”

His rivalry has grown heated with Paul. The two differ on basic questions about the size of governance and national security. While Paul opposes military intervention overseas and eavesdropping by the National Security Agency, Christie believes in aggressive government action to avoid another terrorist attack such as 9-11 or the Boston Marathon bombings.

After Christie attacked Paul as an isolationist in a recent speech, the scion of former Texas Rep. Ron Paul dubbed his new rival the “king of bacon.” The Kentucky senator than proposed sharing a beer to talk out their differences about national security and privacy, but Christie declined.


“I think that was a big mistake for him,” Paul told CBS News last week. “Think about young people, and what young people are concerned with. We want young people to be able to come to the Republican Party. They don’t have any money, so they’re not too concerned with taxes and regulations, but they all have a cell phone, and they’re all on the Internet, and they are concerned about their privacy. So I think the Republican Party ought to be the party that is concerned with and wants to protect your right to privacy.”

Among Iowa voters, Paul enjoys a 60 percent favorability rating, compared to 45 percent for Christie, according to a survey released last month by Public Policy Polling. “Very conservative” voters have an unfavorable opinion of Christie, while “somewhat liberal” voters dislike Paul.

While the GOP has shifted to the right, Christie’s rise could represent the rebirth of a northeastern branch of the party that has been dormant since Dwight Eisenhower left the Oval Office in 1961. Republicans evolved into a western and southern party in the decades that followed, a change that both consolidated their power but eventually appears to have diminished their national appeal.

“It marks the revival, or at least it appears at this time, of the old Northeastern Republicans who have been dormant if not extinct for the last couple of decades,” said Baker, the Rutgers political expert.  “That there is a kind of Northeastern Republican that is internationally minded, defense minded, fiscally prudent, socially tolerant…. It’s something we really thought had pretty much passed out of the picture. But Christie seems to want to revive it and believes it has vitality. Yet at the same time of course he’s got to run the gauntlet of the Republican primaries dominated by conservatives.”