More so than at any point in recent memory, the Republican Party is divided. GOP officials are fighting amongst themselves on everything from immigration to agriculture, the budget to filibusters, shutdowns to the culture war.
But nowhere is the fight as ugly as the growing feud between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R). Given their competing ideologies, we'd expect some serious divisions between these two, but the contempt these two have for one another has taken this fight to unexpected depths, and it speaks to a larger area of concern.
The dispute seems to have started about a week ago, with a speech the governor delivered in Aspen.
"As a former prosecutor who was appointed by President George W. Bush on Sept. 10, 2001, I just want us to be really cautious, because this strain of libertarianism that's going through both parties right now and making big headlines, I think, is a very dangerous thought," Christie said.
Asked whether he includes Paul -- a fellow potential 2016 presidential candidate -- in his criticism, Christie didn't back down.
"You can name any one of them that's engaged in this," he said. "I want them to come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and the orphans and have that conversation.... I'm very nervous about the direction this is moving in."
Christie described the debate over privacy as "esoteric," adding, "I think what we as a country have to decide is: Do we have amnesia? Because I don't. And I remember what we felt like on Sept. 12, 2001."
Paul offered a brief response on twitter, saying, "Christie worries about the dangers of freedom. I worry about the danger of losing that freedom." And I thought that'd probably be the end of it, at least for a while.
It wasn't. Not only did the back and forth continue between these two, it seemed to get personal.
Round Two came Sunday, when Paul appeared at a Republican fundraiser in Tennessee.
"The people who want to criticize me and call me names, they are precisely the same people who are unwilling to cut the spending," Paul said at a "Boots and Jeans, BBQ and Beans" event in Franklin, according to CNN affiliate WKRN-TV.
"They are 'Gimme, gimme, gimme all my Sandy money now.' Those are the people who are bankrupting the government and not allowing enough money be left over for national defense," Paul continued.
As a substantive matter, Paul, as is too often the case, doesn't really know what he's talking about. Federal disaster aid after devastating storms is not, by any sane measure, "bankrupting the government."
Nevertheless, on Monday night, Paul stayed on the offense during a Fox News appearance, saying it's "cheap and sad" for Christie to use "the cloak of 9/11 victims."
Yesterday morning, Christie started Round Three.
At a news conference earlier in the day, Christie said Kentucky takes more federal funding than New Jersey and argued that Paul should examine his pursuit of "pork barrel spending" when finding ways to cut spending.
"If Senator Paul wants to start looking at where he's going to cut spending to afford defense, maybe he should start looking, cutting the pork barrel spending that he brings home to Kentucky," Christie said. "Maybe Senator Paul could, you know, deal with that when he's trying to deal with the reduction of spending on the federal side, but I doubt he would, because most Washington politicians only care about bringing home the bacon so they can get re-elected.
On this, Christie has a point -- Kentucky, unlike New Jersey, receives far more money from Washington than it sends. Paul said that's because of the military bases in Kentucky, but that doesn't make any sense -- New Jersey has more bases than Kentucky, but receives less per capita federal spending. In fact, for every dollar Kentucky sends to D.C., it receives $1.51 back; for every dollar New Jersey sends to D.C., it receives 61 cents back.
And that's when Paul responded with a memorable retort.
Sen. Rand Paul slammed Chris Christie's on Tuesday, calling the GOP governor the "king of bacon," adding another jab in a string of attacks the two Republicans have thrown at each other in recent days.
"This is the king of bacon talking about bacon," the Republican from Kentucky said on CNN's "The Situation Room."
In context, it's possible Paul was talking about Sandy emergency aid, but since New Jersey receives so little pork-barrel funding, especially as compared to Kentucky, it's also possible the "king of bacon" line was the senator's way of making this argument personal.
On the surface, the dispute almost certainly relates to the fact that Christie and Paul will probably both run for president in 2016, and they're starting a fight now that will continue through town-hall meetings in Iowa and New Hampshire in a couple of years. These two, in other words, aren't just from different wings of a divided party; they're rivals.
But let's also remember that the Christie-Paul argument, at its root, is a fight about their party's vision on national security, foreign policy, expansive powers of the executive, and the use of force. It's a fissure that extends throughout the GOP right now, and as fascinating as it is to see these two Republican celebrities go at it, the party is going to have to address the underlying question eventually.