The mainstream media are convinced that it is the “libertarians’ moment” or that the GOP has turned libertarian. How do they know? Some pundits and a few pols say so. Hmm. But does it mean the Republican Party as a whole has drunk the minimalist government, government-phobic, isolationist punch? There is very little evidence that it has. Frankly, this is one more instance in which the media and a few very savvy operators attempt to create political reality out of a debate going on between a very limited number of people.
To begin with, confusion about what conservatives actually stand for allows those pushing the libertarian narrative to claim credit for what are actually long-standing conservative views. Conservatives favor repealing Obamacare, school choice, a less intrusive federal government, modest regulation and respect for the First and Second Amendments (not to mention all the others). These views may intersect with some libertarian positions, but to be candid, conservatism got there first. A philosophy in favor of individual liberty that respects civil society and federalism is the essence of modern conservatism and has been for decades.
So what is new and where is there evidence of the libertarian moment? Not in the GOP Senate primaries. Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Mitch McConnell (Ky.), John Cornyn (Tex.) and every other incumbent Republican, none of whom can rightly be called libertarian, prevailed. The Republicans who captured the nomination for open seats (e.g. Joni Ernst, Ben Sasse, Thom Tillis) are mainstream conservatives, pro-defense and traditional in social values. The candidates espousing more radical, anti-government notions — the sort who cheered the government shutdown — went nowhere.
Then there is foreign policy. The isolationist “trend” essentially entails one junior senator from Kentucky and a few backbenchers in the House. The House, by contrast, voted for a budget to restore defense spending. The House so far has brushed back attempts to gut the National Security Agency surveillance programs. Republicans have voted to repeal Obamacare but are seeking to reform Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and a host of other federal programs — not eliminate them. The Senate Republicans, infuriated with President Obama’s foreign policy, want to up the sanctions against Russia and Iran, condemn human rights violations in Venezuela and prevent a Gitmo shut down. (While some libertarians are pro-life, they aren’t known to be sympathetic toward government regulation. Yet in the states where Republicans are fighting for government regulation of abortion clinics, the libertarian backlash is minimal if not invisible.)
Polling is even more definitive. On foreign policy the GOP is decidedly hawkish these days. In the latest Fox News polls, Republicans by huge margins favor the air strikes on Iraq (73 percent) and think Obama has been too weak on Russia (88 percent) and too unsupportive of Israel (62 percent). In the presidential pre-primary season, candidates are jostling to be Ronald Reagan, not Ron (or Rand) Paul, on foreign policy.
This is not to say that conservatives don’t need to make the arguments for muscular but limited government and an internationalist foreign policy; surely they must. But the collapse of Obama’s foreign policy has put isolationists on defense and the panoply of reform legislation and ideas offered by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) — including support for expanding the child tax credit, a mainstay of using the tax code to promote desirable social ends — suggests there is an awful lot of energy on the reform side of the conservative movement.
While the right remains overwhelmingly conservative and not libertarian, we do acknowledge some inklings of libertarian influence. But these are on discrete issues with a lot of caveats.
Polling and referenda in the hinterlands show that gay marriage is gaining wide acceptance even on the right, something social conservatives have opposed. (The leading libertarian is anti-gay marriage, not a position most associate with libertarianism.) That may in many cases be more a recognition of political reality than of conviction.
What about drug reform? The vast majority of Republicans — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie comes to mind — are not pushing to legalize drugs but to reform the way the judicial system treats drug offenders. The justification — looking out for the long-term interests of nonviolent drug offenders and bolstering the spirit of second chances — is quite conservative in tone.
In short, the rise of libertarianism has been, at least in the mainstream media, vastly oversold. One can speculate that is because the liberals in the media like the areas in which the left intersects with libertarianism (anti-NSA, anti-military). And they may be genuinely uninformed about what “conservatism” really is, or mistake the revulsion against Obama’s executive overreach as libertarian (respect for limited government is a conservative mainstay). In reality, libertarianism has yet to score a major victory and seems to be losing ground on foreign policy. Even in domestic policy, the trend –as we see in attempts to replace Obamacare — seems to be in the direction of a more realistic assessment that we are not getting “small” government anytime soon.
We will see how things progress in the agenda set forward by Republicans in Congress in 2015 and the presidential candidates’ messages in 2016. Most likely the GOP domestic agenda will be pro-reform and pro-federalism — not anti-government. In foreign policy, I strongly suspect the GOP presidential race will turn into a contest between who can be most critical of Obama’s inactive foreign policy and hollowing out of our armed forces. But we’ll see what the voters in the primaries and caucuses have to say.