What drove Christie to launch a strike was Paul’s fierce response to the latest revelations of NSA domestic snooping. Paul had judged James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, the villain of the case and had compared Edward Snowden’s civil disobedience to that of Martin Luther King and Henry David Thoreau. “This strain of libertarianism that’s going through both parties right now and making big headlines I think is a very dangerous thought,” Christie declared in a forum at the Aspen Institute, and for good measure tossed in 9/11 (“widows and the orphans”) lest anyone doubt that Paul and his ilk were soft on terrorism.
The New Jersey governor spoke with the certainty of a man with good reason to believe the party’s wind was at his back. The Wall Street Journal editorial page had earlier dismissed Paul’s anti-drone filibuster as a “political stunt” designed to “fire up impressionable libertarian kids in their college dorms.” Kristol had mocked Paul as a “spokesman for the Code Pink faction of the Republican Party.” McCain had dismissed him as one of “the wacko birds.” (He later apologized.) And after Christie spoke, the same crowd piled on. The Long Island congressman Peter King likened Paul not just to antiwar Democrats of the sixties but to “the Charles Lindberghs that said we should appease Hitler.” Christie’s Aspen performance was “fearless” and “electrifying,” said the neocon pundit Charles Krauthammer, and “an extremely important moment.”
But not everyone on the right believed Christie had thrown a knockout punch at the infidel within the GOP. Writing in Commentary, Jonathan Tobin noted that other conservatives had been echoing Paul’s condemnation of the “national security state” and accused as unlikely a subversive as Peggy Noonan of defecting to the “old line of the hard left.” Even the ultimate GOP tool, the party chairman Reince Priebus, had praised Paul’s filibuster as “completely awesome.” Tobin worried that a “crack up” of the “generations-old Republican consensus on foreign and defense policy” would be at hand if others didn’t follow Christie’s brave example and stand up to Paul and his cohort before “they hijack a party.”
The truth is that that consensus cracked up long ago—done in by the Bush administration and the amen chorus, typified by McCain, Kristol, and Krauthammer, that led the country into the ditch of Iraq. As Reason, the Paul-sympathizing libertarian magazine, pointed out approvingly, Paul’s filibuster “could have been aimed 100 percent at George W. Bush and the policies the Republican party and the conservative movement have urged for most of the 21st century.” And he had gotten away with it despite the protestations of the old conservative guard. Christie may think he can rewrite or reverse this history by attacking Paul, but he’s in denial. Bellicose exhortations consisting of a noun and a verb and 9/11 reached their political expiration date with the imploded Giuliani campaign of 2008.
Indeed, Paul’s opposition to Bush-administration policies is essentially the same as Obama’s when he rode to his victories over Hillary Clinton and McCain. An Ur-text for Paul’s argument against Syrian intervention can be found in Obama’s formulation of 2007: “The president does not have the power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” Like Obama the candidate, Paul was in favor of the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan, against the war in Iraq, skeptical about the legal rationale for Guantánamo, and opposed to the Patriot Act. That’s more or less the American center now. Well before the Snowden NSA revelations, the public was consistently telling pollsters that the federal government was untrustworthy and too intrusive. So low is the public’s appetite for military action abroad that only 9 percent of Americans favored an American intervention in the Syrian civil war in a Reuters survey at the end of August. Once the horrific images of the chemical-weapons slaughter in Damascus became ubiquitous, the percentage of those favoring an American military response still remained well below 50 percent. The more vehemently the strange bedfellows of Obama and the Journal editorial page argued for action—and the more prominently Paul argued against—the more public support fell away. A Journal–NBC News poll taken in the week after Labor Day found that only 44 percent of Americans approved of a limited military strike, and just 36 percent of Republicans.
In response to Christie’s Aspen fusillade, Paul asked why his fellow Republican “would want to pick a fight with the one guy who has the chance to grow the party by appealing to the youth and appealing to people who would like to see a more moderate and less aggressive foreign policy.” After the exchange of barbs died down, Christie retreated. Asked his position on a Syrian intervention after Labor Day, he proved a profile in Jell-O, announcing that he would pass the buck on the issue to the New Jersey delegation in Congress, led by a Democratic nemesis, Robert Menendez. McCain has blinked too. When Paul called for cutting off American aid in response to the generals’ coup in Egypt, McCain condemned him for sending the “wrong message” and making a “terrific mistake”—yet he and other GOP Senate hawks came crawling back to Paul’s position just two weeks later.