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.