After a devastating loss in the November presidential election, it’s no surprise that Republicans are playing the blame game.
At the March 14-16 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington D.C., tensions between the different factions of the Republican Party became bitterly clear, most notably in the confrontations between Senator Rand Paul and the GOP establishment.
“The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered,” the Kentucky Republican said at CPAC. “Our party is encumbered by an inconsistent approach to freedom. The new GOP will need to embrace liberty in both the economic and the personal sphere. If we’re going to have a Republican Party that can win, liberty needs to be the backbone of the GOP.”
Traditional conservatives haven’t hesitated to parry the thrusts of Paul and his fellow libertarian Republicans. Arizona Senator John McCain was quick to brush off Paul’s recent Senate filibuster, which held up the nomination of John Brennan as CIA Director over the Obama administration’s drone policy.
“The country needs more Senators who care about liberty,” McCain said, quoting The Wall Street Journal. “But if Mr. Paul wants to be taken seriously, he needs to do more than pull political stunts that fire up impressionable libertarian kids in their college dorms. He needs to know what he is talking about.”
There have long been philosophical, ideological and policy tensions between the three main wings of the GOP—neoconservatives, social conservatives and libertarians. CMC Associate Professor of Government Jon Shields believes these factions have been in constant competition for control of the party for several decades.
“In a way, these tensions have always existed in the [modern] Republican Party because the party is built around these different factions that don’t share common philosophical grounds and objectives,” Shields said. “One of the big challenges of the party is keeping all of the various parts happy, which is a very difficult undertaking.”
This enduring tension within the GOP—between an interventionist foreign policy (one that abhors appeasing tyrants abroad) and the libertarian preference for a more defensive policy (one that abhors entangling military expeditions)—predictably grows when triggering events occur. Professor Shields points to the Afghan and Iraqi Wars as a recent trigger in the current feud between neoconservatives and libertarians for control of the GOP.
“In the Bush years, you really saw the ascendance of foreign policy hawks in his administration, and the libertarians really disliked that—that was big government par excellence,” Shields said. “When the war went badly, it helped those in the party who wanted to reduce the size of government, so now they have more leverage than they once did, and neoconservatives are in a tough spot.”
However, Shields warns against libertarians overreaching while they have popular support.
“Let’s fight Obamacare, let’s not let this Leviathan get any larger—I think [libertarians] can generate some political sympathy for that,” Shields said. “But they can’t seriously talk about getting rid of social security or Medicare—that goes nowhere fast. I think their best hope is to try to limit government, cut taxes, reduce the size somewhat and reform entitlements that make them more sustainable.”
While libertarians appear to have the momentary upper hand, alienating the other wings of the party—as Paul has done—is certainly not in the party’s best long-term interest. Rather, if Republicans want a legitimate shot at winning in 2016, they need to find a way to unite each group under the GOP banner.
Republicans need look no farther than 1980 to find the recipe for success. Ronald Reagan successfully appealed to libertarians with his fiscal policies, to neoconservatives with his defense and foreign policies, and to social conservatives with his perspectives on social issues and a restrained judiciary. Reagan famously described the “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Perhaps that is a nice place to start as the GOP considers its future.