Despite their differences, Chris Christie and Rand Paul agree on a few things
They're pushing for reforms to criminal justice laws, and they want to see a more diverse GOP
They sometimes take an "agree to disagree" approach on social issues
Both men are considered potential presidential contenders
It’s been a year since New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky started taking jabs at each other, staking out their ideological territory within the Republican Party.
But the two potential presidential contenders have also been singing the same tune on a few issues as they get closer to 2016.
They’ve been vocal advocates for sentencing reform for nonviolent, drug offenders. On politics, they’ve bluntly urged Republicans to campaign in unfamiliar territory. And on social issues, both sometimes take an “agree to disagree” approach.
Experts say the two are finding common ground, but all three categories fall under the same umbrella: broadening the Republican Party, a narrative that many Republicans support.
“Both men have their eyes squarely fixed on the next presidential election, but they’re also trying to nudge the party as a whole to follow suit in an effort to expand the tent,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell.
Such a strategy will benefit Christie and Paul if they campaign for the White House. But if they become opponents in the GOP primary, they’ll continue to work to differentiate themselves and corner off their own parts of the GOP electorate.
They’re just both hoping that that electorate will be a lot bigger by the time 2016 rolls around.
The ‘dangerous’ libertarian vs. the ‘king of bacon’
“Feud.” “Spat.” “Battle.” “War of words.”
Almost every fighting term was applied to last year’s back and forth between Christie and Paul.
It started last July at the Aspen Institute in Colorado, when Christie blasted Paul’s “strain of libertarianism” as “a very dangerous thought.”
Paul had been attacking the government’s phone surveillance program unveiled by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden; Christie was defending it.
Paul hit back, attacking Christie for pushing too hard to get Superstorm Sandy aid from the government. He even called the governor “the king of bacon” on federal spending.
The two continued exchanging barbs on surveillance and fiscal issues for weeks. Paul later argued the party was big enough for the both of them, and offered to have a beer with Christie. But the New Jersey governor said he was too busy running for a second term.
For many pundits, their squabble quickly became a clear illustration of the rift between moderate Republicans and the growing libertarian wing of the GOP.
And for the two men themselves, it didn’t hurt to dig in and pick a fight: Christie was in the middle of a re-election campaign in the deeply blue state of New Jersey, and Paul was trying to build his national profile.
Since last summer, Christie and Paul have taken occasional swipes at each other, and it’s safe to say tensions are still high now that the two find themselves among the top tier of most 2016 presidential polls – although their numbers aren’t convincing. No one in the crowded GOP field has consistently polled above 20%.
Criminal justice reform
Despite their very large differences, they’ve recently been advocating some of the same issues and ideas.
For one, they’re among a growing group of Republicans calling for reform to the criminal justice system on nonviolent drug offenders.
In New Jersey, Christie’s administration had already enacted reform that places first time drug offenders into mandatory, one-year treatment, rather than prison.
Christie argues that it costs half as much to treat an addicted person than it does to lock them up, and he’s been trying to make the program more attractive to social conservatives.
“If you’re pro-life, you’ve got to be pro-life for the person who’s sitting at the bottom of a jail cell, drug addicted, feeling like their life is over,” Christie said last week at the Aspen Institute. “If we are a party that believes that every life is precious and no one should be deprived of a second chance, then we need to get on that issue.”
In another effort to tweak the criminal justice system, Christie rushed the Democratic-controlled legislature into a special session this week to meet and vote on bail reform.
The legislation aims to make it easier for poor people who commit minor offenses to post bail, while at the same time make it more difficult for those charged with violent crimes to get out of jail while they await trial.
“We simply can’t allow the … treatment of nonviolent, low-income offenders to continue to be the victim of politics and procrastination,” he said Wednesday in an appearance with African-American mayors, reverends and nonprofit leaders.
He mentioned the legislation is supported by the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Paul has also been actively pushing for lighter sentences for drug offenders. While he makes the same economic argument as Christie, his bigger focus is on addressing racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.
“Three out of four people in prison right now for nonviolent crimes are black or brown,” Paul said at the National Urban League conference last week in Cincinnati. “Our prisons are bursting with young men of color and our communities are full of broken families.”
The senator has been aggressively courting African-American voters since the 2012 presidential election, when Republican Mitt Romney only won 6% of the black vote.
Paul introduced legislation last week to get rid of the 18:1 disparity in penalties between crack cocaine and powder cocaine.
As of now, a person with one gram of crack, which is cheaper, would get the same penalty as someone caught with 18 grams of powder cocaine.
He has also teamed up with Attorney General Eric Holder to push back against mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders.
“As conservatives, (Christie and Paul) see the enormous cost of the drug war, and see sentencing reform for nonviolent drug offenders as a way of addressing those costs,” said Quinten Kidd, political science professor and director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.
“But they come to that position from different ideological places in the party – one from a libertarian place and the other from a small government, economic conservative place,” he added.
They’re not the only potential 2016 Republicans making waves on this front.
Former Gov. Mike Huckabee, Rep. Paul Ryan, Gov. Rick Perry, and Sen. Ted Cruz have spoken out about the issue or supported reform.
But with their active travel schedules and high-profile speaking gigs, Paul and Christie are certainly two of the loudest GOP advocates on the issue.
While Paul has generated a lot of publicity in his quest to court African-Americans, Christie has also said the party needs to adjust its approach, and he points to himself as the prime example of how to do that.
Christie won 21% of New Jersey’s black vote and 51% of the Hispanic vote in his re-election victory last year, and he says he did it by reaching out to nontraditional GOP voters.
“We got to campaign in places where we’re uncomfortable,” Christie told reporters last week in Denver, while traveling as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. “You cannot get the vote of someone who doesn’t think you care about them.”
Romney won a whopping 60% of the white vote in 2012, but still lost the general election — a huge sign that the demographics in the country are changing.
“Every Republican candidate who’s serious about winning a national election knows all about that and is doing whatever he or she can,” said Whit Ayres, a political consultant whose firm does polling for Sen. Marco Rubio.
The Florida senator is another potential White House contender courting nontraditional GOP voters.
Paul has made minority outreach a staple of his message, and emphasizes each time that he’s working with Democrats when he pushes legislation that aims to help African-Americans.
“You go to a Republican event and it’s all white people—not because we’re excluding anybody, but because we just haven’t done a good enough job encouraging people to come into our party,” he said in an April speech at Harvard.
In the past 18 months, Paul has made multiple trips to historically black colleges and urban centers, preaching a pro-school choice position and holding meetings with students and school leaders.
Last month, he helped open a Kentucky GOP office in a predominantly African-American area in Louisville, and last week he touted his support for voting rights and the Civil Rights Act before the National Urban League.
Softer approach on social issues
Social issues had a sizable role in 2012, both in the presidential contest, as well as congressional races.
Following a string of controversial comments about contraception, abortion and rape by Republican candidates and supporters, Democrats spent millions to paint the GOP as anti-women.
Some Republicans took notice, including, it seems, Christie.
“I don’t think we’re getting pounded because of the social issues. I think we’re getting pounded because of the way we present ourselves,” Christie said last week in Aspen, answering a question about how to avoid the same 2012 dust-ups.
Republicans need to tweak their “tenor and tone,” he added, while being more tolerant of other viewpoints at the same time.
Paul has also taken a softer approach on controversial topics.
“I think Republicans could only win in general if they become more ‘live and let live,’” he told Reason magazine earlier this month.
In March, Paul said that in order for the party to grow, Republicans “will have to agree to disagree on social issues,” mentioning same-sex marriage as an example.
Christie made the same “agree to disagree” case when he traveled to Colorado last week and was pressed about his public opposition to recreational marijuana.
“We’ve got to stop in public life worrying about making everybody happy and faking it, like we’re going to agree all the time. We’re not going to agree all the time,” he said. “If you’re looking for a candidate who you’re going to agree with 100% of the time, go home and look in the mirror.”
With that said, they’ve still gone on record about where they stand on social issues. They’re just not always eager to jump into large-scale debates that can sometimes dominate headlines.
Christie, for example, at first declined to comment on the recent Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare’s contraception coverage mandate for certain for-profit companies. Asked about it again a couple weeks later, he simply said he supported it.
Christie and Paul seem to estimate that an “agree to disagree” approach is safe at times, but it also appears to be a natural fit for each politician, given their political backgrounds.
“Paul and Christie seem to be finding themselves on similar territory, but from different places on the ideological spectrum,” said Kidd. “Paul as a libertarian wouldn’t normally focus on social issues and Christie as more of an economic Republican wouldn’t either.”
Don’t expect any kumbayas
With both men highlighting their appeal among Democrats and independents, it’s to their advantage to widen the party and include more nontraditional voters.
But it’s not unexpected for Republicans to try to augment that base.
“I think all the candidates want to expand the party,” said longtime Republican operative Hogan Gidley. “You’re not just running for president of the Republican Party, you have to appeal to all Americans.”
But politically, that may be one of the few areas in which Christie and Paul’s interests intersect.
They likely still view each other as their own antithesis, said O’Connell and they will surely butt heads on a full slate of topics, such as foreign policy, government spending and civil liberties.
“You’re starting to see them relatively agree on some issues,” he said. “But they’re still perfect foils for one another.”