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A Split in the GOP Tent

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By Sebastian Mallaby
Monday, December 4, 2006

Republicans are good at reinvention. They have appealed to voters' dark side (Nixon's Southern strategy) as well as to their sunny side (Reagan's "Morning in America"). They have skipped from anti-government populism (Newt Gingrich and the leave-us-alone coalition) to big-government machine politics (the alliance with corporate lobbyists known as the K Street Project). Through all these transformations, the GOP has sustained its big-tent coalition. The question in the wake of its election thumpin' is whether the tent will split.

You can see this possibility in " Liberaltarians," an essay in the New Republic by Brink Lindsey, the director of research at the libertarian Cato Institute. Lindsey is not merely joining the large crowd of disenchanted conservatives who believe that the Republican Party has betrayed its principles -- spraying money at farmers, building bridges to nowhere and presiding over the fastest ramp-up in federal spending since Lyndon Johnson. Rather, Lindsey is taking a step further, arguing that libertarians should ditch the Republican Party in favor of the Democrats.

Why react to the temporary corruption of a party by abandoning it outright? Lindsey's answer is that Republicans are not merely failing to live up to their principles; the principles have altered. The party has been virtually cleaned out of the Northeast; it has suffered setbacks in the Mountain West; it increasingly reflects the values of its stronghold in the South. As a result, it has lost its libertarian tinge and grown more religious and traditionalist.

There has always been a tension between Republican libertarians, who believe that individual choices should be unconstrained by received wisdom, and Republican traditionalists, who believe pretty much the opposite. In their history of the conservative movement, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge recall that Barry Goldwater believed Jerry Falwell deserved "a swift kick in the ass;" and Goldwater's wife, Peggy, helped to found Planned Parenthood in Arizona. But for a long time the two wings of the party could paper over these differences. Christian conservatives and libertarians agreed that misconceived government programs were harming traditional values. Schools forced sex education on children. The tax system and the welfare system penalized marriage.

Conservatives have grown less able to bridge these divisions because of their success. Welfare has been reformed, and the tax system now supports families with the expanded child tax credit. Having ticked off the first things on their to-do list, Christian conservatives now press for affirmative state action on behalf of traditional values: amendments to the constitution to bar gay marriage, government efforts to teach abstinence, federal payments to faith-based groups. All these policies appall libertarians.

It's not just the values of the South that pose a problem. It is the region's appetite for government. The most solidly red states in the nation tend also to be the most reliant on federal handouts -- farm subsidies, water projects and sundry other earmarks. It's hard to be the party of small government when you represent the communities that benefit most from big government. George W. Bush tried to straddle this divide by pleasing libertarians with tax cuts and traditionalists with spending. The result is a huge deficit.

Would libertarians be more comfortable in the company of Democrats? On moral questions -- abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research -- clearly they would. But on economic issues, the answer is less obvious. For just as Republicans want government to restore traditional values, so Democrats want government to bring back the economic order that existed before globalization. As Lindsey puts it in his New Republic essay, Republicans want to go home to the United States of the 1950s while Democrats want to work there.

If Democrats can get over this nostalgia, there's a chance that liberaltarianism could work. For the time has passed when libertarians could seriously hope to cut government: Much of what could be deregulated has been, and the combination of demographics, defense costs and medical inflation leaves no scope for tax cuts. As Lindsey himself says, the ambition of realistic libertarians is not to shrink government but to contain it: to cut senseless spending such as the farm program and oil subsidies to make room for the inevitable expansion in areas such as health.

As it happens, this also describes a plausible agenda for the Democratic Party -- at least if it can shed the back-to-the-1950s yearnings of its reactionary left. Precisely because Democrats want government to provide social insurance against the volatility of globalization, the party has an interest in cutting unneeded federal spending. Precisely because entitlements are expanding so expensively, the party needs cost-saving ideas from anyone who has them -- including libertarians.

The era of big government is far from over, and liberals and libertarians gain nothing from fighting over its inevitable growth. But precisely because government is on a trajectory of unsustainable expansion, liberals and libertarians have a common interest in reinventing it.

smallaby@washpost.com


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