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Christie vs. Paul vs. Rubio vs. Cruz -- the Republican implosion

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
updated 10:36 AM EDT, Mon August 5, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: Traditionally, Democrats have been the party of internal feuds
  • Now the Republicans seem badly split, with top figures sniping at each other, he says
  • Chris Christie and Rand Paul traded barbs; Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio also attacking
  • Navarrette: Republicans aren't demonstrating that they have presidential stature

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- American humorist Will Rogers once said, "I'm not a member of any organized political party. I'm a Democrat."

The old saying goes that, come election time, Republicans fall in line and Democrats fall apart. The tradition in the GOP has been that, if you ran for president and came up short -- Ronald Reagan in 1976, George H.W. Bush in 1980, John McCain in 2000, Mitt Romney in 2008 -- next time, it would be your turn. Among Democrats, it was a free-for-all. Hillary Clinton was thought to have a lock on the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, but Barack Obama had other ideas.

That's how it has long been in our politics. Republicans were the party of order, Democrats were prone to chaos.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

No more. In 2013, the Democrats seem pretty well organized. All of them eyeing the presidency -- New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, et al. -- seem to be waiting to see what Hillary Clinton will do in 2016 before announcing their intentions. Last week, in Washington, Clinton even had a cordial lunch with an old friend who she ran against once and may run against once more -- Vice President Joe Biden.

Five things we're learning from Christie-Paul spat

Meanwhile, Republicans are engaged in a series of messy food fights.

You have Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas vs. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida over immigration; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vs. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky over domestic surveillance and the cost of preventing terrorism; Paul vs. Sen. John McCain of Arizona over whether the Kentucky senator would -- if he ran for president -- be preferable to Hillary Clinton; Rubio vs. the GOP establishment over defunding Obamacare; and Cruz vs. well, just about everybody over just about everything.

The result is a battle royal with four or five slugfests going on at once.

A few of them stick out as noteworthy.

Fighting for the GOP's heart and soul?
Chris Christie, Rand Paul: Not best buds
GOP leaders in war of words

Rubio poked at fellow Republicans -- particularly those in the establishment -- for not being tougher on President Barack Obama's top domestic accomplishment, asking: "If we're not willing to fight on Obamacare, what issue are we willing to fight on?"

Cruz continued that theme when -- in comments that got him in hot water with liberals and conservatives -- he accused fellow Republicans of being part of a "surrender caucus" because of their reluctance to buck the tide.

And at least one GOP scuffle -- the one between Christie and Paul -- is downright nasty.

Christie started it when he criticized Paul's vocal opposition to warrantless federal surveillance programs, saying it hurt efforts to thwart terrorism. He sanctimoniously invited opponents to "come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and the orphans and have that conversation."

Paul wasn't in the mood for a lecture.

He dismissed the attacks from Christie as "kind of cheap and sad" and suggested that if the governor "cared about protecting this country, maybe he wouldn't be in this 'give me, give me, give me all of the money' (mindset) that you have in Washington."

Christie wasn't in the mood to be scolded.

He suggested Paul "start cutting the pork barrel spending that he brings home to Kentucky." Although, Christie said, he doubted that would happen because "most Washington politicians only care about bringing home the bacon so that they can get re-elected."

Then Paul went for the knockout.

"This is the king of bacon talking about bacon," he said incredulously during an interview on CNN's "The Situation Room." He clarified: "You know, we have two military bases in Kentucky. What does he want to do, shut down military bases in Kentucky?"

I guarantee that given Christie's struggle to lose weight, most Americans won't think of military bases when they hear that a fellow Republican dubbed him "the king of bacon."

What's a food fight without bacon flying through the air?

Some of this conflict was inevitable. Politics is a contact sport, and it always has been. This is how parties behave when they're out of power and looking for a way to get back in. It's also how politicians behave when -- after their party suffers a string of losses -- they try to whip up the special sauce that allows them to finally rack up a victory.

Democrats did the same thing after losing three presidential elections in a row -- 1980, 1984, 1988. Along came a handsome, young governor from Arkansas with a staggering amount of ambition, and he decided that the way to break the curse was to market himself as a "new Democrat," which we came to understand meant more pragmatic and more moderate.

Still, what we're seeing from Republicans isn't just politics as usual. There is nothing wrong with a little conflict and soul-searching to recalibrate what a party stands for between elections. But this has gotten awfully rough. Warring parties could find it hard to forgive and forget when they need to close ranks against the Democrats.

This isn't like the political tussles of old.

The elbows are sharper. The attacks more personal. The insults more pointed. It's not just that these folks disagree with someone's ideas and tactics; in some cases, it's clear that they really don't like that person. So when they butt heads, the goal isn't just to defeat their opponent but to destroy him.

If this keeps up, don't be surprised if voters decide in 2016 to keep these kindergarteners in their sandbox and far away from the White House. As well they should.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

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