- - Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Though Karl Rove, Ronald Reagan, and Barry Goldwater weren’t in attendance at the 2014 edition of the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, the contrasting visions each had for the Republican Party were well represented.

Championing Rove’s cynical realpolitik wing that believes in winning simply for winning’s sake was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who essentially told the CPAC audience the GOP should keep doing what lost the last two presidential elections — but do it even worse. Showing he’s either out-of-touch with reality or really just a liberal, Christie even said Republicans have lost because they’ve been nominating candidates who are “too conservative.”

I’m pretty confident the only people who think John McCain and Mitt Romney were too conservative are on the payroll at MSNBC or Al-Jazeera America. I can’t think of a single issue McCain hasn’t betrayed conservatives on during his (painfully and endlessly) long career. There’s a reason why McCain has a perpetual invite to every Sunday morning talk show conservatives don’t watch. The mainstream media are McCain’s base because they have something in common. They both hate us. Not to be outdone, Romney’s signature legislation as governor of Massachusetts inspired President Obama’s worst idea yet — Obamacare. If Mitt McCain is “too conservative” as Christie claims, I’m a Speedo model.

Then there’s Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whose CPAC speech was aiming to be Reaganesque. But not so much President Reagan in 1984. More like Candidate Reagan in 1976. This was Cruz’s attempt to redefine the debate, and take the narrative back from the party establishment that hijacked it. Cruz laid out a bold agenda for reclaiming American Exceptionalism. Cruz even offered — gasp! — specifics, which certainly caused heart palpitations for every loser GOP consultant in the 202 area code. No pale pastels here, this was all bold colors in stark contrast to Christie.

Frankly, it’s difficult to surmise how the same political party can simultaneously claim the visions cast by Christie and Cruz, for they could not be any more different. While Christie was talking about winning to lead, Cruz was talking about leading to win.

If Christie and Cruz were replaying an argument the Republican Party has been having with itself the past 40 years, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is trying to start a new one. In what might be the orneriest speech the normally calm, cool, and collected Rand Paul has given yet, he sounded more like the fiery Goldwater than his quirky father. Rand’s speech had several memorable lines, including “I believe what you do on your cellphone is none of [government’s] damned business.”

The CPAC crowd, increasingly comprised of young libertarians in recent years, ate it up and cheered on every syllable. Rand went on to dominate the CPAC Straw Poll, as his father used to do. It remains to be seen if Rand can ride the spirit of Goldwater all the way to the nomination in 2016, but at the very least his surge from an unknown in 2009 to spokesman for a movement in 2014 shows that not even two decades of big-government Republicans could kill the grassroots’ libertarian streak. In fact, two decades of big government Republicans probably helped to resurrect it.

If all three of these men run in 2016, it will finally give Republican primary voters what they have long wanted, a substantive debate among alpha males with differing visions and ideas for not just the party, but also the country. We will be treated like adults, rather than inundated with talking points, cliches, and consultant-driven pabulum.

It will also be fascinating to see how current and former governors who want to run as well, like Bobby Jindal and Mike Huckabee, navigate this existential debate. It may seem best for them to try and rise above it, but the shadows cast by Christie, Cruz, and Rand Paul have become larger than life now. So avoiding this debate altogether probably isn’t an option.

I also suspect this is a winner-take-all contest. What Christie (Rove) is offering compared to Cruz and Rand goes beyond mere disagreements about tactics. As Rep. J.C. Watts once told me, the GOP establishment Christie represents “just want to manage the decay.” Cruz and Rand represent those who want to do something about it, or at the very least go down swinging. More and more Republicans are coming to the conclusion those are irreconcilable differences.

Steve Deace is a nationally-syndicated radio host and the author of “Rules for Patriots: How Conservatives Can Win Again.” You can follow him on Twitter @SteveDeaceShow.

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