I am not calling this post “The Libertarian Case For Mitt Romney,” because I agree with Doug Mataconis that there is no such case, and I’ve spent many posts arguing that Romney doesn’t seem likely to be any better than Obama on reducing the deficit or stopping the serious civil liberty abuses that have expanded under the last two presidents. I want to see Gary Johnson hit 5% and I think he’s got a real shot at it.
However, I think there’s an interesting point that I haven’t seen many libertarians making: There is an undeniably growing libertarian wing in the Republican party that did not exist the last time Republicans were in power. The question is whether it’s growing large enough to have an influence on policy.
On paper, you might place libertarians equidistant from Republicans and Democrats. They oppose liberal regulations and entitlements. They oppose conservative defense spending and civil liberties infringements. They are roughly split between the two parties on abortion. Both major parties seem intent on expanding the power and scope of government with their favorite causes, and even accepting expanded government in the areas they claimed to oppose when they were out of power (“nation-building” for Republicans, domestic surveillance for Democrats, etc). You might think libertarians would equally shun them both.
Yet we are beginning to see libertarian-like politicians elected to the Republican party in an increasingly large number. Ron Paul has been in the House for decades, but now Justin Amash is there, too. Paul’s son Rand is in the Senate, joined by an increasing number of potential allies, including Mike Lee and, soon, Ted Cruz. Some of these folks are more Tea-Party-ish than libertarian-ish, but they seem to display a more fervent belief in truly smaller government than their predecessors.
Why are they siding more with Republicans than Democrats? It’s a question loyal reader Ross asked a few weeks ago that led to some interesting speculation. I still don’t have any solid opinions, though I suspect Obama’s presidency helped remind even the hypocritical conservatives about some of the government intrusions they’re supposed to oppose. But whatever the reason, the growth of the libertarian wing is a definite trend that at least seems to be tolerated by the Republican party, and they seem to be growing in influence.
Even as Mitt Romney’s foreign policy plans sound a lot like Obama’s, Rand Paul is pushing back against the notion that “every dollar spent on the military is sacred.” That seems so obvious to libertarians; we are constantly hearing about money being wasted on tanks and ships that the military doesn’t want. But when Gary Johnson the Libertarian criticizes outlandish military spending, the media doesn’t listen. When Rand Paul the Republican does it, he gets a big microphone at CNN. Some libertarians are hoping that the “fiscally conservative faction” of the Republican party will continue to increase in influence over the “neoconservative faction,” and that this makes the GOP a worthy investment.
Puritans vs. Separatists
I’ve been reading some random history recently, and this reminds me of the old differences between the Puritans and the Separatists, two of the groups involved in the early colonization of America from England. The Puritans wanted to purify the church; the Separatists thought it was so hopelessly corrupt that they needed to break away and start their own.
Similarly, many libertarians have completely abandoned the Republican party as corrupted beyond repair. But there are others working to change it from the inside. While the “Separatists” struggle to even get on ballots as Libertarians and then maybe end up with 1% or 2% of the vote, there are “Puritans” managing to get on some ballots as Republicans and actually getting sent to Washington. Many Separatists would argue that Rand Paul isn’t even close to being a real libertarian, but, come on, he’s actually getting millions of people to listen to his arguments about cutting back the military. He might even have more influence on Washington than his father right now – let’s take what we can get!
Is the influence big enough?
However, I’m not sure I’m convinced that the influence of the Republican libertarian wing is strong enough to expect that they might keep a Romney presidency from looking like Bush’s. The Democrats had their more “radical” wings in 2008, but they lost the “public option” in the health care bill and now they’ve even lost their planks about civil liberties; party leaders have incentives to downplay civil wars.
On the Republican side, the established powers seem to be doing everything they can to prevent the libertarian wing from growing in influence. On the other hand, they’re not stupid; they have to realize that the younger generations (e.g. their only hope of retaining power in the future) are much more receptive to the libertarians than the neoconservatives.
Presidents bring a lot of people with them to the executive branch; this is what Sonic Charmer calls “Candidate, Inc.” We saw Obama’s administration filled with “fringe” liberals who actually seemed to believe their statist rhetoric; could a Romney administration include some libertarian Republicans who actually believe their party’s rhetoric about reduced government influence in the economy? Or is that just a hope-and-change pipe dream?
I don’t know. But it’s interesting to think about.