“Gimme Gimme” and the Coming Chris Christie-Rand Paul Battle Royale

The political power players's barbs are about more than the 2016 presidential election.

One of the more fascinating summer fights this year is the nearly tennis-like public spat between Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). That both are Republicans is not lost on the commentating class, especially given the highly unusual nature of two Republicans openly strafing one another in the open — while jockeying for position in a primary that doesn’t start for another two years.

These days, however, politicians have massive rhetorical megaphones that are perpetually plugged into the zeitgeist. Egos get put on display and pitched for talk show consumption on an ongoing basis, heads get bigger and pop culture gets meatier. Everyone has his or her own party, and the real party can only helplessly watch as that once celebrated and highly disciplined Republican messaging cadence gets flushed into the toilet.

Jersey Jabba and Bluegrass Willy Wonka can have at it as long as they want without intervention from reasoned Republicans. In the meantime, GOP strategists grow increasingly nervous that someone is going to say something that will end up in an embarrassing Democratic Party YouTube ad gone viral. That’s already happened with Paul, recently caught slipping into his infamous like-father-like-son dementia when he tactlessly tagged Jersey’s Superstorm Sandy victims as greedy kids grabbing at the federal government tit. Obviously, Paul’s now notorious “gimme gimme” was a subtle jab at the pizza-loving political boss in Trenton who predictably fumed at the notion.

Still, that could all  have been part of Christie’s plan to knock Paul down a peg or two in early 2016 presidential polling. A recent Public Policy Polling survey put the Kentucky Senator at 16 percent, some three percentage points ahead of the GOP presidential primary pack including stars such as former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL), Christie and former Vice Presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). Yet, the Pauls can be notoriously self-marginalizing, eventually lodging their feet into their mouths.  Gov. Christie sees an opening to lure the Senator into the open and let the sparks fly. Paul is going to say something that the greater viewing public won’t swallow too well.

It’s widely accepted that this is the first in many early scraps between front-running contenders for the GOP presidential nomination. Christie represents an irritated, shrinking wing of center-right pragmatists who have all but lost control of the Republican Party. These episodes, whether  Christie vs. Paul or internal bouts over immigration reform and the budget, represent that wing’s effort at staging a comeback. Being the shrewd and calculated player that he is, perhaps this latest round of entertainment is Christie’s way of experimenting with an eventual party coup. Testing the waters with Paul could have exploratory benefits as it helps the Governor gauge just how much he is liked or disliked by the base.

But Paul is not stupid. He wants to see how angry Christie can get, knowing full well that the Governor’s media fans have given him a pass on just about every nasty, dismissive exchange he’s had with any number of stunned Jersey parents and taxpayers on the campaign trail. At some point, that will get old. In the meantime, Paul carefully engineers his own emerging libertarian base within the Republican Party that is showing signs of maturity through the NSA scandal and constant wrangling over drone warfare. It’s younger, it has crossover appeal and it harbors a dangerous degree of animus towards the federal government. Christie shouldn’t underestimate the value of that new base.

In the end, this is not just a spat between two presidential hopefuls. It is a regional contest indicative of the worrisome geographical polarization in American politics. The old North versus South paradigm has transformed itself into urban versus rural. Both men are poking at scabs beyond their control.

CHARLES D. ELLISON is the Washington Correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune and UPTOWN Magazine. He is also the weekly Washington Insider for WDAS 105.3 FM (Philly) every Sunday at 9:50 am ET. He can be reached via Twitter @charlesdellison.