CPAC 2013: What the GOP Can Learn From Libertarians

The internal divide within the GOP between its “establishment” and libertarian members is as pronounced as ever. Coming off a demoralizing defeat in the presidential election and the recent comments by John McCain on the now-famous Rand Paul filibuster, a growing number of Republicans are beginning to see that the direction of their party is going to have to change if they wish to succeed at the polls. 

For the first time in decades, many (though certainly not all) Republicans feel that their party’s path to success needs to come if not into, then at least damn-near close to, the libertarian camp, bringing with it the spoils of electoral success as well as a noticeable shift in domestic and foreign policy. This kind of partnership would, overall, mark a considerable improvement in both the popularity and appeal of the Republican Party. And with the annual CPAC gathering beginning today, I celebrate the possibility of a future partnership by noting what a strong libertarian influence — especially by certain prominent libertarian-leaning Republicans — could do for the party as a whole. 

Among the most important lessons of the past presidential election is the importance of consistency and integrity of one’s apparent principles.  One of Candidate Romney’s biggest political flaws, amazingly, was his eagerness to conform and accommodate different policy positions, something that, at the same time, the American people seem to be demanding from Congressional leaders in Washington (more often called that quixotic and often damaging word, “compromise”). He did this to the point where the electorate felt, understandably, unsure of how a Romney administration would lead on a particular issue. This is clearly a reputation for Republican leaders to avoid: instead, take a stand, be resolute, and do not cave under political pressure.

But an important corollary to this rule must be choosing where to take your stand and being smart about it. Take a stand against unauthorized killings of American citizens who have not been allowed to stand on trial, not on rape policy. Be smart about the battles you choose to wage and save your most fervent principled stands on issues that Americans want to see politicians discuss (by the way, Rand Paul learned this lesson himself when his Senate election campaign in 2010 suddenly became about the Civil Rights Act instead of who is best qualified to serve as Senator of Kentucky). On issues where your views are becoming less and less popular with the American people — but which you still firmly believe — take a practical political position that allows states to determine the policy on that issue, as some conservatives and almost all libertarians are willing to do on issues like gay marriage and even marijuana legalization. 

Republicans must learn to engage in public discussions on the protections of the Constitution and the proper role of government in society; they need not delve into discussions that only the loathsome and irrational would have on topics that considerably exceed the borders of basic decency and, notably, science. For all of President Obama’s electoral success, the American public maintains a strong preference for government doing less rather than more, and it is the responsibility of the conservative-leaning party to drive home to the general public the excesses of our current welfare and regulatory state in order to begin winning that argument at the polls again. 

Rand Paul (who I can now proudly call my colleague after his recent PolicyMic article) and his recent filibuster demonstrate how one can begin to win the public narrative even after a rocky start. Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic has convincingly documented how badly the media mishandled the important points of Rand Paul’s campaign. That conclusion is beyond doubt.  But it’s very likely the coverage of his (possible) 2016 presidential election run will be very different given his recent fame on such an important issue to American voters. No doubt an in-person thank you from organizations like Code Pink after the recent filibuster will not bring him — or the party — many votes, but it will change the narrative around Rand Paul and that alone may be sufficient to entice enough independent voters into the newly-enlarged GOP camp to finally win them a presidential election. 

What the GOP needs now is a makeover. They cannot accept another election of looking like unprincipled, waffling Washingtonians or just outright lunatics arguing over the definition of rape. Hopefully the larger GOP camp at the federal level can learn from the sensible and principled libertarian positions on drone use and state leadership on divisive social issues, which may finally allow the next set of elections to be about the policies and principles that this past election should have been about