In what many described as yet another indication of a monumental shift happening in the Grand Old Party, the Republican National Committee last week passed a resolution calling for an end to the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.
But the party’s apparent shuffling to a more limited government, civil liberties-conscious platform may not be as genuine as some believe.
The RNC’s resolution, which passed by an “overwhelming majority,” declares “the mass collection and retention of personal data is in itself contrary to the right of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
These are strong words for the party that stood by President George W. Bush when he secretly (and illegally) ordered the NSA to spy on the domestic communications of Americans without any warrants at all. Time magazine’s Zeke Miller branded the RNC’s resolution “the latest indication of a growing libertarian wing of the GOP.”
It’s not just on NSA surveillance that Republicans are choreographing a shift. Chris Christie, Republican Governor of New Jersey and expected 2016 presidential candidate, made headlines earlier this month when he condemned the “failed war on drugs” in his second inaugural address.
Departing from the traditional Republican orthodoxy that more prison beds equal less crime, Christie railed against the canard that “incarceration is the cure of every ill caused by drug abuse.”
Rand Paul (R-KY), another expected presidential candidate and the perceived leader in the GOP’s libertarian swing, has also worked in Congress to eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent drug possession.
“[M]ore and more conservatives are clambering down from the prison ramparts,” wrote political scientists David Dagan and Steve Teles in a 2012 article in The Washington Monthly. “Change is coming to criminal justice because [of] an alliance of evangelicals and libertarians” on the right, they claimed.
Many libertarians have also been pleased with Republicans’ triumphant rekindling of anti-spending, anti-debt rhetoric, which seems to owe its rebirth to the election of Barack Obama as a catalyst.
But libertarians would do well to keep in mind a simple lesson of politics: Never trust a party out of power.
Time and time again, the party not occupying the White House and lacking full control of Congress opposes the status quo and hunkers down on purported party creeds, only to contradict those principles when they return to power.
The reality is that holding power brings perverse constraints, incentives, and perspectives on policy, while being out of power incentivizes politicians to exploit public discontent and capitalize on the political winds.
In the 1990s under President Bill Clinton, much of the GOP fancied itself downright noninterventionist in the realm of foreign policy. Republicans railed against Clinton’s meddling in Somalia and, especially after the “Black Hawk Down” incident, insisted on a pullout.
Republicans also resisted Clinton’s humanitarian interventions into the Balkans on the grounds that Bosnia and Kosovo were not vital U.S. interests and that it could potentially embroil the U.S. in a civil war that was none of our business.