The Republican rejection of libertarianism. And why it probably won’t work.

Libertarianism isn't all that conservative.

The Gadsden Flag
The Gadsden Flag

That's the argument former Bush Administration officials Mike Gerson and Pete Wehner offer in a new -- and important -- essay in National Affairs that posted today. Here's the key paragraph from that piece:

Responsible, self-governing citizens do not grow wild like blackberries, which is why a conservative political philosophy cannot be reduced to untrammeled libertarianism. Citizens are cultivated by institutions: families, religious communities, neighborhoods, and nations. Parents and spouses, churches and synagogues, teachers and coaches, and the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are among the foremost shapers of citizens in our republic. But government has a necessary (if limited) role in reinforcing the social norms and expectations that make the work of these civil institutions both possible and easier. That role can involve everything from enforcing civil-rights laws, to saving the elderly from indigence, to restricting the availability of addictive substances.

The Gerson/Wehner piece is an argument for government (albeit it in a limited role) and a rejection of the so-called constitutional conservative/libertarian/tea party movement that has been organized around the principle that the government that does least does best. The essay lands at a time when libertarianism is very much on the march within the Republican party -- as evidenced by the rise of both Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz within the party not to mention the fact that a majority of House Republicans voted for a measure last summer to significantly curtail the government's spying powers.

Sentiments -- voiced by Paul and others -- that the U.S. needs to rethink its role as world policeman, for example, would have been unthinkable in the Republican party of even a decade ago.  (George W. Bush was re-elected 10 years ago in large part due to his focus during the campaign on his ability -- and willingness -- to do what it took to keep Americans safe in the world.)  Now, Paul's views are held by an increasing number of people who identify as Republicans including, most interestingly, young people (30 and under) who have abandoned the GOP in droves in the last two presidential elections.

Gerson and Wehner, on the other hand, are part of what can be described as the establishment wing of the GOP. And, their essay is the latest sign that the establishment is striking back -- rhetorically and policy-wise -- against a libertarian/tea party movement that, they believe, has run amok over the past four years and threatens to badly damage the party's prospects heading into 2014 and,especially, 2016.

"The alternative to government overreach is not the dogmatic disparagement of government but the restoration of government to its proper and honored place in American life," Wehner and Gerson write at one point. At another, they insist: "Conservatives should offer a menu of structural reforms that do not simply attack government but transform it on conservative terms."

The broad conclusion of the piece? A philosophy that rejects government will never prevail --  no matter how much the American public dislikes the direction that President Obama has led the country. "Conservatives are more likely to be trusted to run the affairs of the nation if they show the public that they grasp the purposes of government," write Gerson and Wehner. So, from health care to immigration to education and beyond, the duo argue that the party needs to be for something rather than against (almost) everything.

Little of that argument is new or unknown to party strategists looking toward not just the 2016 presidential race but also the long term electoral sustainability of the GOP.  The problem for the Wehners and Gersons of the world is that the energy of the Republican party at the moment lies with those most willing to move in complete and total opposition to Obama, not those who want to make a nuanced argument about how government isn't always bad (or good). What's an easier stump speech to rile up the base: One that savages Obamacare and the growth of government or one that argues that true conservatism is a belief in some government when and where it's necessary? You already know the answer.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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