Why Chris Christie probably benefits from Rubio’s Syria vote

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Yesterday, Sen. Marco Rubio voted against Syrian intervention in committee. The vote was surprising to many, and some will suggest it had everything to do with politics (Rubio’s argument that it is now too late — that we should have done more to aid the moderate rebels sooner — is not without merit.)

Many will see this as an effort to keep pace with grassroots conservative darlings Rand Paul and Ted Cruz — both of whom will also presumably vote against intervention. Having gone out on a limb on immigration reform, Rubio has hugged his likely 2016 opponents in the Senate by joining their quixotic defund Obamacare scheme, and now, by opposing intervention in Syria.

Regardless of whether or not this was a political calculation (and again, there’s no reason to doubt Rubio’s vote was on principle), there very well could be political ramifications. So the obvious question is: How might Rubio’s vote impact the 2016 primary?

As you may know, I’m operating on the theory that the early stages of the 2016 GOP primary are best thought of as an NCAA tournament. Paul and Cruz are competing to win the “grassroots/libertarian populist” bracket, so their votes against intervention are in keeping with that brand. Meanwhile, Christie and Rubio are competing for a more “establishment/conservative” division. (Scott Walker and others are in a wild card division.)

Since Chris Christie has the luxury of not having to vote on Syria, and since Rubio is his primary competitor for the establishment money and votes (according to my theory), Rubio’s vote could be seen as a way for Christie to distinguish himself. But whom will the contrast benefit?

The good news for Christie is that he doesn’t have to commit. He can wait to see how this shakes out. Rubio doesn’t have this luxury, so he is essentially betting the political mood won’t shift in the next two years — that the anti-interventionist trend within the GOP will continue.

If Rubio’s right, then he is well positioned to make the following arguments to donors and primary voters: 1.) I am more conservative than Chris Christie, who is too moderate to win a GOP nomination, and/but 2.) I’m more serious and reasonable than my counterparts in the Senate. 3). In conclusion, if you want someone who is conservative but serious, I’m your guy. (You can see how Rubio might run up the middle with this positioning.)

On the other hand, let’s imagine that things play out differently. Let’s imagine the political winds shift, as they often do (think about how bad Hillary’s vote for Iraq looked a couple years later). What if Republicans return to a more traditional (at least, in modern terms) position on foreign affairs, and suddenly they crave a strong Commander in Chief who puts dictators in line?

If that happens, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — who is already perfectly-cast to play the role of a strong executive who puts other countries back in line — will remind voters that his opponents allowed a dictator to use chemical weapons — and didn’t do anything about it.

(Note: I am, of course, assuming here that this vote on Syrian intervention will go down as a defining vote. It’s possible that won’t happen. Having said that, I don’t think I’m alone in saying this feels like it might be a significant moment.)

If the establishment hawks and the neocons circle the wagons around Christie — if he is able to “own” that brand and have it all to himself — one imagines that would translate into a lot of money and support for Christie. It’s one way he could emerge as the lone establishment candidate. Christie would love that, inasmuch as we could see a repeat of 2008 and 2012, where conservatives split the vote and allowed an establishment candidate to win the nomination.

By 2016, if the public is yearning for a strong leader who can restore American strength in the world, who’s better suited than Christie?

Matt K. Lewis