Beat the New Boss

D.C. libertarians plot their Obama administration strategies.


Four years ago, after the re-election of George W. Bush, the Permanent Republican Majority had finally taken over. Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform predicted that the Democrats would not even survive four more years. "Without effective control of the government, the Democratic Party is like a fish out of water," Norquist said at the time, "a vampire in the sun, Antaeus held aloft, an appliance unplugged."

But the Democrats survived. In fact, they came back faster than all but the most optimistic liberals expected. In January 2009, they are returning to Washington stronger than at any time since the Great Society Congress of 1965-67.

Washington's libertarian activists and think tankers are still trying to wrap their brains around the new reality. Today you can sort them into two rough categories. There are the Bargainers, the ones who believe they can do business with President Barack Obama. And there are the Battlers, the ones who believe Obama can-and should-be impeded while the Republican Party is rebuilt into a genuinely liberty-minded organization.

"The upside of the Obama victory," says Matt Kibbe, president of the pro-market group FreedomWorks, "is that it draws, more clearly, the lines between the good guys and the bad guys. It gives us an especially good idea of who the bad guys are." I.e., the new administration.

A D.C. libertarian's status as a Bargainer or a Battler largely depends on what issue he or she works on every day. Economic libertarians such as Kibbe, the people who spent the Bush era pushing unsuccessfully for market-based health care reform and private Social Security accounts, expect four to eight years in an even deeper wilderness. "I watched the Social Security campaign unravel from the inside," Kibbe remembers. Now there will be no "inside."

Obama has some advisers who sympathize with libertarians, many of whom he befriended at Harvard and the University of Chicago. These include Jeff Liebman, one of Obama's top economic advisers, who has been attacked by liberals for statements supporting Social Security privatization and tax cuts. "I know Jeff Liebman well," says Michael Tanner, a Cato Institute analyst who fought for private Social Security accounts in 2005, but "Obama ran a campaign that precludes Social Security reform."

The Battlers are not necessarily apocalyptic. A Democratic victory has been predicted for so long that they grew acclimated to the idea. Gallows-humor jokes about the Obama presidency were part of the city's conversation for months before the election. But in the closing weeks the news just got worse and worse.

A Democratic Congress became a Democratic majority of at least 254 seats in the House and 57 seats in the Senate. A financial crisis triggered a $700 billion bailout and widespread nationalization of the banking sector, engineered by Republicans. Some form of national health insurance seemed increasingly likely as the political terrain grew more favorable. The ailing Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) has made it clear that he wants a health care bill-"the cause of my life"-to pass.

"We'll all have to suffer for him," says Tanner. "In Egypt, didn't they bury the pharaohs with their slaves?"

The Battlers' fear is tempered by their dismal experiences with Bush. The 43rd president's second term began with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, but a post-election push toward the long-held libertarian dream of privatizing Social Security was nearly dead on arrival. As worried as he is about Obama, Tanner now admits that he was "dead wrong about Bush." White House staff members "met with us but didn't listen," he says. "A lot of meetings were held just to soothe us. The Clinton administration, whether you believe it or not, treated us better."

Myron Ebell, an environmental analyst at the pro-market Competitive Enterprise Institute, had an even tougher time with the Bush White House. "We won't have allies in the Obama administration," he says, "but we didn't have allies in the Bush administration either. Look at Christine Todd Whitman at the EPA. [Former Energy Secretary] Spencer Abraham didn't know much about energy. [Former Treasury Secretary] Paul O'Neill supported cap and trade [a plan to raise emissions standards while offering companies tradeable emissions credits], and so does [Treasury Secretary] Hank Paulson." While Ebell expects worse from Obama, he feared the possibility of a John McCain presidency even more.

Other libertarians, including many Bargainers, never even went through a period of expecting anything from the Bush White House. Chief among them are anti-drug war activists. The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), which spent both the Clinton and Bush years in a defensive crouch, is cautiously optimistic about the Obama administration.

"Obama has spoken out about ending DEA meddling in states where some marijuana use is legal," MPP President Rob Kampia says. "The generic Democratic member of Congress is better on our issues than the generic Republican member of Congress. Look at the votes on our bills."

Kampia has been burned before. Both Clinton and Bush reportedly experimented with drugs, but both became fierce drug warriors. "What makes Obama better than them," Kampia says, "is that he's not a liar. He hasn't lied about his personal use, or his stance on DEA raids. He's shown intellectual honesty about issues, while other politicians squirmed away, to their detriment."

Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, is not himself a libertarian, but he litigates for one of the issues many conservatives and libertarians still agree on: ending government-mandated racial preferences. He has successes to point to from the Bush years. The 2003 Supreme Court cases Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger narrowed the scope of preferences, and the addition of Samuel Alito to the high court increased its skepticism on this count. In Clegg's view, Obama can actually do what Bush and his Justice Department never dared to: attack the underpinnings of affirmative action itself.

"I can imagine a Nixon-goes-to-China moment on racial preferences," Clegg says. "The very fact that Americans have elected a black president should raise serious questions among the people who supported race preferences in the past as to what extent they can still be defended." Clegg points out that Obama has said his daughters are so privileged now that they shouldn't benefit from affirmative action.

Jameel Jaffer spent considerably more time than Clegg fighting the Bush administration. The director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project and the lead plaintiffs' counsel in the national security letter case Doe v. Ashcroft and several other abuse-of-power lawsuits, Jaffer has spent his legal career trying to roll back executive power. He is not yet sure of what to expect from Obama.

"No president is going to be as eager to wield the power that Bush arrogated to the executive branch," Jaffer says. "Executive unilateralism was a signature idea of his administration." The problem is that Obama isn't so easy to read. After saying he'd vote against it, he voted for a bill that legalized warrantless monitoring of international communications involving people in the United States, previously prohibited by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. "It was by far the most sweeping surveillance statute enacted by the Democratic Congress," Jaffer says. "We think it's unconstitutional. I hope a lot of leaders come to recognize that they made a mistake."

With the Bush administration ending in a frenzy of disappointment, most libertarians don't expect much more luck with Obama, outside of a few issues involving drug policy and executive power. The debate in Washington now is on how much effort to spend trying to remake the Republican Party. "We're fighting for the soul of the GOP," says Tanner, who adds that libertarians need to look beyond the party, at other reformers, other populists, people who won over Americans as much as Bush has lost them. "We need to seize that Ross Perot mantle of fighting against these guys."

David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.

NEXT: Unmutual at UC Irvine

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  1. I’m going to use “change” and “hope” in an ironic manner, to show how witty I am!

  2. I hope you change your mind.

  3. “We won’t have allies in the Obama administration,” he says, “but we didn’t have allies in the Bush administration either.”

    Says it all.

  4. If GWB didn’t drive you away from the GOP screaming in anger and betrayal, you’re not a libertarian. You’re a Republican. We should get news of the unilateral Bush bailout of the Big 2.5 in the next 36 hours.

  5. 12:07pm isn’t me Damnit!

    You need to call yourself other#, not# or ##2

    If not you will be hearing from my lawyer!
    I’m looking into the fine print of the DMCA now.

  6. I find this whole thing amazing. If a single thing gets enacted in the next 4 years that I like (reduced drug raids, government ‘efficiencies,’ more freedom in pretty much any sector) it’ll be better than the last 4 years. What are the odds that the next 4 years are better for libertarians than the last 4 years? I’d like to hope that they’re pretty good.. but I wouldn’t make a bet as to the magnitude, nor do I think we’ll be happy with it.

  7. I’d like to hope that they’re pretty good..

    Well, we have plenty of hope. Now, where’s the change?

  8. I’m subpoenaing REASON‘s server logs Mr FAKE#.You better hope you are behind more than just one proxy.

  9. “Libertarian politics” is an oxymoron.

    Boring article, at any rate.

  10. And just where are the libertarian community activists and grassroots local clubs that are going to spread the policy solutions ginned up on high by the libertarian think tanks?
    This movement has sooo neglected the need to have thousands of county libertarian groups working just as hard as Democrats, Republicans, leftists, etc. in forming public opinion.

  11. David Weigel looks at how Washington’s libertarian activists and think tankers plan to fight for liberty

    I imagine cocktail parties will be involved.

  12. You know, that photo of Obama looks like it was photoshopped to remove a bottle of tequila.

  13. D.C. Libertarians don’t think much of actual Libertarianism. Much like the former Libertarian Presidential Candidate Bob Barr.

  14. In Clegg’s view, Obama can actually do what Bush and his Justice Department never dared to: attack the underpinnings of affirmative action itself.

    “I can imagine a Nixon-goes-to-China moment on racial preferences,” Clegg says. “The very fact that Americans have elected a black president should raise serious questions among the people who supported race preferences in the past as to what extent they can still be defended.” Clegg points out that Obama has said his daughters are so privileged now that they shouldn’t benefit from affirmative action.

    The abomination of race based affirmative action will not end in the Obama administration. Far too many Dem pols have a vested interest in keeping it around. It matters not if the immoral policy is ineffective or even counter-productive, the reverends Jackson and Sharpton must be placated.

  15. Papi Obamavich: How I learned to stop worrying and love socialism.

  16. Shannon Love, I take exception to your political classifications.

    Political tags – such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth – are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire. The former are idealists acting from highest motives for the greatest good of the greatest number. The latter are surly curmudgeons, suspicious and lacking in altruism. But they are more comfortable neighbors than the other sort.

  17. Shiny American pluralism still haunts the all too damned souls of these tankoids. The paychecks keep coming . . .

  18. So does # stand for pound, or sharp, or number, or fracture, or alchemical air, or just octothorpe?

    As for Washington politicians, I’m guessing they don’t stand for anything at all.

  19. Damn, wrong thread.

  20. I can imagine a Nixon-goes-to-China moment on racial preferences

    I believe he is Hoping for Change. You know the old saying – you can Hope for Change in one hand, and crap in the other, and see which one fills up first.

    Seriously, though, Obama and Deval Patrick (Deval Patrick!) are going to gut affirmative action? Even if they could bring themselves to ideologically, it would suppress the pro-Obama black vote in 2012, and hurt his chances of re-election. Ain’t gonna happen, folks.

  21. number
    but I never see numbers next to the # on the comments.I figure it is sort of like your appendix.

  22. They’re divided into two camps, either of which would fit in a phonebooth.

    In other news, the state of Illinois has deleted from their website a PDF containing an embarrassing picture of Obama and Blago.

    And, Weigel really needs to call Hawaii and confirm his interpretation of their remarks, because Weigel is wrong. Why won’t he pick up the phone? Or, has he already called and found out that he was wrong?

  23. LoneDoucheBag, you should ask Weigel to do an exclusive interview with you. Then you could use your grasp of teh logicz and teh truthiness to run circles around him, right?

  24. Episiarch, I have better things to do than respond you libruhtarian sockpuppets like you.

  25. You just responded.

  26. That wasn’t me. I would never respond to you, and I suggest whoever was spoofing me book AnAttorney.

  27. You just responded again.

  28. D.C. Libertarians don’t think much of actual Libertarianism. Much like the former Libertarian Presidential Candidate Bob Barr.

    Funny, the whole suspicion of him being a Red in libertarian drag is pretty close to my take on people who keep popping off about the “beltway”, the “orange line”, “kochtopus”, “cosmotarians”, etc.

  29. Watch out, Episiarch. He’s studying the DMCA as we speak! Watch YourBack.

  30. I just got served a subpoena for SlanderAndSpoofage! That was quick!

  31. Hey Weigel? Did the guy you voted for win? I hope you get a Pony for Christmas!

    The next four years are going to be great! We’ll be in the middle of a depression and living in Hooverville, have troops in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, and will to show carbon credit stamps to buy gas for our Pelosimobiles, but at least there’ll be a chance our universal healthcare will cover our marijuana. Whoooo! It’s a libertarian paradise!

  32. Looks like the electoral college has not been persuaded by the “Birthers”.

  33. The debate in Washington now is on how much effort to spend trying to remake the Republican Party. “We’re fighting for the soul of the GOP,”

    This sums up the entire problem with the national Libertarian political organization. The answer is, of course, ZERO effort. You cannot remake a party whose sole purpose is to wield the reins of the most powerful government in human history. It is an impossibility and can only lead to disappointment. Hell, Libertarians can’t even run their own party properly, and now they want to continue their damaging relationship with the GOP? MEMO to the LP and DC think tanks: Daddy doesn’t love you. He never will. Cut your ties, start over and focus on building a movement from the ground up.

  34. After the federal government gets finished spending a few more trillions nobody actually has, will the next book be entitled: “The Audacity of Hoping for Change: Does anyone have ten $100,000 Bills for a Million Note?”

    I hear the rough draft they’re using in Zimbabwe is not without its critics.

  35. And I agree with Stretch, the real route to having an impact is demonstrating a constituency, not asking politicians who are in power to rally behind giving it up.

  36. Attention Reasonoids: Ross Perot is not who you want to take after. Emulate success.

    Sometimes I get the feeling that half of all libertarians would starve to death in a completely libertarian society.

  37. At one time I thought there was hope in the Republican Party, but now I realize there is no difference between the two parties, both being statist to the core.

    The difference is between statists and non-statists, however that plays out — it looks like the non-statists are losing.

  38. “you could use your grasp of teh logicz and teh truthiness to run circles around him, right”

    That shit is classic. lol

  39. Sometimes I wonder if this is all just a dream, then I remember that’s awfully narcissistic.

  40. “the long-held libertarian dream of privatizing Social Security”

    Is “privatize” a code word for “abolish”?

    That would be my dream.

    In Washington, “privatize” is usually a code word for “outsource to political cronies using the force of government to ensure citizens get fleeced”.

    So much for beltway libertarianism.

  41. Obama won’t do anything to stop the drug war, because when you get right down to it, the drug war 1) vastly increases federal power, and 2) pays out a shitload of pork.

    I’m sure knows it’s morally repugnant, but I’m not holding my breath for him to do the right thing.


  42. What a dream: “thousands of county libertarian groups… forming public opinion.”

    Pray tell, why do so many Libertarians dream of having amber waves of grain without first doing the work of raising the seed corn?

  43. For anyone that wants to find out what genuine libertarians are saying:


  44. What is a REAL LIBERTARIAN? Show me your PAPERS!

  45. Is “privatize” a code word for “abolish”?

    Yes, of course. And nobody is buying it. What an inane idea.

  46. “New boss, same as the old boss”

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