GOP strategist Karl Rove, the famed “architect” of George W. Bush’s two presidential victories, says libertarianism “has always been the most attractive gateway” for Republicans to seduce young voters. “The difference this time around,” Rove adds, “is that some of the libertarian appeal is driven by drugs,” a platform that he argued is incompatible with mainstream Republicanism. “My sense is that economic libertarianism is the most durable part of the GOP platform,” he says.
The man who now carries Paul’s torch—his son Rand—agrees that fiscal conservatism is the linchpin of any libertarian movement, but he cautions against dismissing other issues viewed by establishment Republicans as “outside the mainstream.” On topics from data privacy to Internet freedom to marijuana decriminalization, the younger Paul says Republicans can “soften their image” and maximize the party’s appeal to young voters and independents by arguing for personal responsibility over government regulation. Ultimately, Paul says that he’s discovered “the answer” to his party’s recent struggles: “a more libertarian-themed Republican outlook” uniting broad factions with a low-tax, limited-government platform that steers clear of expensive, endless wars and de-emphasizes divisive fights over social issues.
Iowa Republican Party Chairman A.J. Spiker, who managed the elder Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign, says the GOP’s recent libertarian streak (several Paulites have won election to Congress since 2008) speaks to a desire among some Republicans for the party to “return to its roots” of limited government that defends the little guy. Whether that means battling big government over monetary policy, big military over bottomless defense budgets or Big Brother over Internet privacy, a partial Republican embrace of libertarian ideology could signal an upheaval of party orthodoxy and a decided turn in the direction of a leaner, laissez-faire populism.
Step 6: Bring Back The Bootstraps
The Republican presidential primary battle lingered so long because of the party’s existential divide between its upscale, managerial wing and its downscale, populist wing, embodied in the durability of Rick Santorum’s candidacy. Nothing new there (see Rockefeller, Nelson). But the urgent threat of schism has Republicans conducting an invigorated examination of how to close the breach.
Many in the party believe that the GOP needs to divorce itself not just from big government but also from big everything: business, oil, military. “They need to move toward simplifying life,” Erickson says. “The tea-party movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement share a common strain, and they both think the deck is stacked against the entrepreneur, the average American, the little guy.”
Distancing itself from Wall Street would chill much of the party’s financing mechanism. But Romney was the most successful fundraiser in the party’s history, and he perished in the shadow of his own evident callousness toward the less affluent.
“We should be fighting over the poor,” says Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. “Right now, the Left triangulates the poor and the Right ignores the poor. It’s no good.… We should have a rumble about who’s more pro-poor, because it’s the decent thing to do.”
One place to start would be the big banks. The Wall Street bailout polled poorly across the political spectrum, and some party strategists believe that Romney’s disparagement of the “47 percent” shaped an avenue for the party to break from that perception of snobbery and extend its appeal to the working and middle classes.
Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, whose Harley-riding image and wonkish background helped inculcate early hopes that he could bridge the divide, puts it thusly: “We do not believe in ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in this country; it’s ‘haves’ and ‘yet-to-haves.’ ... You don’t have to change one thing; in fact, the superiority of free-market principles and pro-growth policies for people at the bottom should be our central point. And some folks in the Republican Party just aren’t very articulate in saying that.… I believe in agreeing to disagree on the social issues. I believe in looking for ways to be on the front foot about immigration, possibly conservation.... They’re important, yes, but in a way they’re additional indicia of saying that the policies and principles we are advocating are very specifically aimed at the yet-to-haves in America, that they are our first, second, and third concern.”
It would be, at its core, a restoration, a journey back to the party’s aspirational tradition. “We’re the bootstraps guys!” Brooks says.
Step 7: Just Say Yes
Republicans on Capitol Hill have been rebranded since 2008 as the reliable obstructionists, a group known more for its reflexive opposition (bank regulation, climate change, gun control, etc.) than its proactive problem-solving. Yet, ironically, health care, an issue that has largely defined the GOP as the lamentable “Party of No,” offers an opportunity for Republicans to act more affirmatively.