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Friday, May 23, 2008

The LP and conservatism

The U.S. Libertarian Party is in the midst of their annual convention in Denver. There, on May 25th, they will select their next presidential candidate. The odds seem to favour former Republican congressman Bob Barr, but Wayne Allyn Root is a very real and credible challenger (you can look at the field of candidates here).

While the convention is buzzing, the Wall Street Journal issues back-to-back editorials that may be at least partially inspired by the threat this third party poses to Republicans in the next general election. The threat is not that the LP will win, but that it will widdle away enough votes in certain states to make a McCain-led White House terribly difficult to achieve. In Georgia, for instance, Bob Barr is polling at eight per cent, which may be enough to give the nod to the Democratic challenger, whether Clinton or Obama.

In "Does the Libertarian Party Matter?" Bruce Bartlett argues that libertarians shouldn't really bother with the Libertarian Party but should, instead, focus their efforts on special interest groups like the National Rifle Association:

"Although this may turn out to be a banner year for the Libertarian Party, the LP is not a real alternative to the Republicans and Democrats. Because of the Electoral College, restrictions on ballot access and onerous campaign finance laws, third parties simply aren't viable for actually electing candidates. Nor do they pull the major parties toward their position: Ron Paul's success did not encourage other Republican presidential candidates to even pay lip service to his ideas.

"I believe that libertarian ideas would be better promoted by an interest group such as the National Rifle Association than through the Libertarian Party. Such a group could use the limited resources available for libertarian ideas far more effectively by establishing a political action committee, lobbying and advertising than by a political party running futile campaigns for public office. Nevertheless, the Libertarian Party may be an interesting force this year."

Meanwhile, today, former Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson tries to make the case that conservatism is not dead in "The Death of Conservatism is Greatly Exaggerated." Thompson wants conservatives to recall their "first principles," which overlap with libertarian first principles (the foreign policy issue divides libertarians; even if a majority of libertarians are non-interventionists, a libertarian case for intervention abroad can and has been made by people like Boston University law professor Randy Barnett. See, for instance, "Libertarians and the War.")

Here are those basic principles and convictions, according to Thompson:

"...Conservatives should stay true to their principles and remember:

"- Congress cannot repeal the laws of economics. There are no short-term fixes without longer term consequences.

"- In a free and dynamic country with social mobility, there will be great opportunity but also economic disparity, especially if the country has liberal immigration policies and a high divorce rate.

"- An education system cannot overcome the breakdown of the family, and the social fabric that surrounds children daily.

"- Free markets, not an expanding and more powerful government, are the solution to today's problems. Many of these problems, such as health-care costs, energy dependency and the subprime mortgage crisis, were caused in large part by government policies."

His appeal appears to be an attempt to re-meld the libertarian and social conservative elements that have, in the past, dominated the Republican Party. Free market economics, small government, plus an emphasis on the family, equals success for Republicans. That's a simple message--family and free markets--that is bound, if taken up by the Republican leadership, to lead to greater success for the GOP.

The main hurdle the Republicans have to overcome is their credibility on small government issues. If the Libertarian Party grows (as, I think, it is bound to do under Barr), it will be in large part because small government conservatives no longer believe that Republicans mean it when they say they will defend the free market, and shrink the size and scope of government. To many, the election of John McCain signals that the only conservative leg of the conservative "three-legged stool" the Republicans will defend is foreign policy conservatism. Upholding the values found in strong families (the social conservative leg), fiercely defending the free and open market, and actually shrinking the size and scope of the federal government (the fiscal conservative leg) are not issues that McCain can speak to without generating skepticism on the part of conservatives who have paid attention to his record, and the record of the GOP over the Bush years.

Would a loss for the Republicans in the next general election be a bad thing? For many, it would. Just one Clinton or Obama administration can do an awful lot of damage. The growth in the federal government will be astronomical, they insist. Divorce rates may climb, and social liberalism will be on the ascendancy. Still, evangelicals, other so-cons, and small government libertarians & conservatives would get a full and proper hearing from the GOP establishment should they lose the election. And maybe, just maybe, a candidate in the mold of Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan will emerge to challenge the Democrats. Would four years in the wilderness be worth a candidate like that? At least maybe.

Posted by P.M. Jaworski on May 23, 2008 | Permalink


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Excellent post, Peter.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2008-05-23 2:02:24 PM

I don't know why you and others think that losing would make the Republicans turn to the right. Based on evidence from around the globe, it appears to be supremely unlikely. Defeat tends to cause conservative parties, especially in this day and age, to move to the centre. Look at Canada, look at post-Howard Australia even, look at the UK, etc, etc.

Indeed, a great deal of the fault for the failure of the Congressional GOP ought to properly be laid at the hands of foolish libertarian campaigns who took just enough votes to cost the Republicans at least a handful of seats over the past few years - often coming from deserving conservatives and thus forcing the reduced ranks to make compromises that they wouldn't otherwise have had to make.

To govern is to choose. It's very easy to carp and hurl insults from the sidelines when, as in the case of Ron Paul and others, you have no prospect of ever winning and actually being asked to implement your ideas.

$30 Million+ to Ron Paul. Imagine if, instead, that money had gone to help solidly conservative candidates in marginal seats. What a waste.

Posted by: Adam Yoshida | 2008-05-23 11:33:20 PM

I disagree with you Adam. The Republican base in the US is very hard right (including their media support - Fox News, National Review). When they lose the election (and they will), the conclusion we be based on two things: a very unpopular incumbent President and his very unpopular war, and a presidential candidate that wasn't "right wing" enough. There's no indication at all in the US today that the Republican party's policies are too right-wing. Most Republicans will document their fall as being Bush-related, not policy or dogma-related.

I'm a bit confused about your assertion that Conservatives in Canada have moved to the centre. Yes, compared to the Reform Party, Harper's Conservatives are more to the centre (it was the only way to get into power). But the Harper Conservatives are way to the right of ANY federal Progressive Conservative party. And hiring Guy Giorno is no indication of "moving to the centre"

Posted by: Paul Gallagher | 2008-05-26 9:53:42 AM

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