Along with several conservative commentators, we have suggested that the “libertarian moment” in the GOP is a canard. If libertarians are inherently skeptical to the point of hostile toward even core government powers, including law enforcement and foreign policy, there is a whole lot of evidence that the Republican Party is less entranced with the libertarian philosophy than it was just a few years ago. And if libertarians pride themselves on indifference as a matter of public policy to issues such as poverty, income inequality and maintenance of a safety net, then, again, the GOP seems to be rejecting essential elements of libertarian doctrine. There are plenty of examples.
For starters, YouGov’s recent polling shows that the country as a whole is more supportive of the police and more critical of the protesters in Ferguson, Mo., than they had been initially. Among Republicans, 61 percent think the police have acted reasonably while only 12 percent think they haven’t. As for the behavior of the residents, 74 percent of Republicans think that it has been unreasonable while only 10 percent think that it has been reasonable.
On foreign policy, there appears to be no one among the crop of potential 2016 GOP presidential contenders other than Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) who thinks that the Islamic State threat is overblown or that the United States should sit on the sidelines while the burgeoning terrorist state takes hold in Syria and Iraq. To the contrary, the candidates seem to be competing to be the most hawkish and most critical of President Obama’s do-nothing foreign policy. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s recent observation is typical of the prevailing sentiment: “It is a consequence of the policies of this administration that have made withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq the primary objective of American foreign policy. I think that has sent the wrong message to the wrong elements in that part of the world and to others that are looking on.”
Coupled with the House budget to increase defense spending, these voices reflect a determination to exercise U.S. power and influence in the world. The Obama era seems to have frightened Republicans (not to mention the rest of the country and our allies) into a new appreciation for a forward-leaning foreign policy. With the Islamic State on the loose and American and European jihadists sprouting up in the Middle East, the idea of dismantling anti-terror surveillance or forswearing use of drones seems downright dangerous.
On the domestic front, the most creative voices on the right — from the reform conservatives to Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — are looking at new ways to fight poverty, improve education, replace Obamacare and address other concerns of middle-class and poorer Americans. Gone is the obsessive focus on budget-cutting, although many of the reforms will have the effect of reducing the scope of the federal government.
Meanwhile, on the revenue side, cutting tax rates and scrubbing the tax code of any policy preferences have given way to a new interest in an expanded child tax credit and payroll reform. Instead of making the tax code policy-neutral through devices such as a flat tax, conservative lawmakers and reformers are looking at ways to ease individual purchase of health care through a refundable credit, make child-rearing more affordable by means of an expanded tax credit and fight poverty with an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit.
The libertarian impulse — restricting law enforcement, shrinking from international challenges, removing government from societal problem-solving and favoring government indifference to poverty-fighting at home and abroad (in the form of eliminating foreign aid) — has gripped a relatively small segment of voters and an even smaller segment of elected officials and candidates. Perhaps Republicans are rediscovering that real-world problems are not amenable to a largely hands-off government. That does not mean capitulation to a overreaching, centralized and intrusive liberal welfare state. Rather, it means conservatives are looking for constructive and vibrant governance, not abdication.