A combination of early presidential maneuvering and internal policy debate is feeding yet another iteration of that media perennial: the great Republican crackup. This time it's tea party insurgents versus get-along establishment fogies fighting principally over two things: national security and Obamacare.
; National security: Gov. Chris Christie recently challenged Sen. Rand Paul over his opposition to the National Security Agency metadata program. Paul has also tangled with Sen. John McCain and other internationalists over drone warfare, democracy promotion and, more generally, intervention abroad.
So what else is new? The return of the most venerable strain of conservative foreign policy — isolationism — was utterly predictable. GOP isolationists dominated until Pearl Harbor and then acquiesced to an activist internationalism during the Cold War because of a fierce detestation of communism.
With communism gone, the conservative coalition should have fractured long ago. This was delayed by 9/11 and the rise of radical Islam. But now, 12 years into that era — after Afghanistan and Iraq, after drone wars and the NSA revelations — the natural tension between isolationist and internationalist tendencies has resurfaced.
In fact, both parties are internally split on domestic surveillance, as reflected in the very close recent House vote on curbing the NSA. This is not civil war. It's a healthy debate that helps recalibrate the delicate line between safety and security as conditions (threat level and surveillance technology, for example) change.
The more fundamental GOP divide is over foreign aid and other manifestations of our role as the world's leading power. The Paulites, pining for the splendid isolation of the 19th century, want to leave the world alone on the assumption that it will then leave us alone.
Which rests on the further assumption that international stability — open sea lanes, free commerce, relative tranquility — comes naturally, like the air we breathe. If only that were true. Unfortunately, stability is not a matter of grace. It comes about only by Great Power exertion.
In the 19th century, that meant the British navy, behind whose protection America thrived. Today, alas, Britannia rules no waves. World order is maintained by American power and American will. Take that away and you don't get tranquility. You get chaos.
That's the Christie/McCain position. They figure that America doesn't need two parties of retreat. Paul's views, more measured and moderate than his fringy father's, are still in the minority among conservatives, but gathering strength. Which is why Christie's stroke — defending and thus seizing the party's more traditional internationalist consensus — was a signal moment in the run-up to the 2016 campaign.
The battle lines are drawn.