A Fight that Had to Happen

It may be unfair to tar libertarians with the isolationist moniker. Libertarians believe that our interventions have led to a growth in the national-security state that threatens our liberties. They don't like the UN or NATO any more than Taft did, but stop well short of advocating an American withdrawal from world affairs.

Indeed, in his riposte to Christie and King, Paul made it clear that while he recognizes who the enemy is (“I don’t mind spying on terrorists,” he said. “I just don’t like spying on all Americans”), the overriding issue is big government:

“They’re precisely the same people who are unwilling to cut the spending, and their ‘Gimme, gimme, gimme — give me all my Sandy money now.’” Paul said, referring to federal funding after the hurricane last year. “Those are the people who are bankrupting the government and not letting enough money be left over for national defense.”

That, too, is an unfair criticism. While there was a lot of pork in that Sandy aid bill, the extent of the disaster was so profound that the feds had to step in and do it quickly.

Paul also believes the emphasis on curtailing the surveillance state resonates with the young:

“If you talk about some privacy issues like that, I think you will find youth coming to you,” said Paul, who said his own decision on whether to run for president won’t come until next year.

Ross Douthat also sees the rise of the libertarian right as a generational issue:

Among younger activists and rising politicians, the American right has a plausible theory of what its role in our politics ought to be, and how it might advance the common good. What it lacks, for now, is the self-awareness to see how it falls short of its own ideal, and the creativity necessary to transform its self-conception into victory, governance, results.

The theory goes something like this: American politics is no longer best understood in the left-right terms that defined 20th-century debates. Rather, our landscape looks more like a much earlier phase in democracy’s development, when the division that mattered was between outsiders and insiders, the “country party” and the “court party.”

The vote last week to defund the NSA's snooping programs is a good example. Rep. Amash, a Ron Paul disciple, cobbled together a coalition of libertarian Republicans and civil-liberties Democrats and almost shocked Washington. Such a coalition would collapse if the question of taxes or spending were to be addressed, but for purposes of protecting basic American liberties, party lines disappeared -- for one vote anyway.

Nevertheless, while the fractures between libertarians and the establishment may be most pronounced when it comes to national security, the real fight is over a philosophy of governance. Both sides may agree that government is too big, but what happens when one side gives lip service to that idea and the other genuinely wants to do something about it? More traditional conservatives may argue that social spending and government agencies like the EPA need to be reined in, but basic government functions cannot be eliminated. Libertarians want to roll back a large slice of the welfare state and actually reduce the size of government and the scope of its responsibilities. Whether that could actually be accomplished is unknown given the constituencies that have grown up around entitlements and departments like energy and education -- both of which would be targeted for elimination in a libertarian administration.

For purposes of this debate, details aren't important. What matters is that the libertarian right has found its voice and is making its presence felt in every corner of the Republican Party. In so doing, it has made the "court party" very uncomfortable. However, it should be pointed out that the last two establishment GOP presidential candidates have had fairly easy runs to the nomination, despite efforts by the Tea Party and its allies to stop them. Whether the libertarians can convince the broad swath of self-identified Republicans to give them a chance remains to be seen.