Don't Get Too Comfortable With the GOP's New Love For Libertarians

The party's shift to a more limited government, civil liberties-conscious platform may not be as genuine as some believe.


GOP elephant
DonkeyHotey / Foter / CC BY

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.

All of this is done with an eye toward the poll numbers. Americans increasingly oppose draconian drug war policies, debt-ridden government, and excessively interventionist foreign policies.

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.

Although then-Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) drafted a resolution that would have barred money for airstrikes against Serbia in support of Kosovo, the Senate ended up narrowly passing a bill authorizing NATO attacks. But that authorization failed to pass the Republican-led House of Representatives.

"In the run-up to the 2000 presidential elections, U.S. participation in Balkan peacekeeping became a prominent campaign issue," according to the Congressional Research Service, "with Republican candidate George W. Bush and his advisors indicating that a Bush Administration would move to withdraw U.S. armed forces from the Balkan operations."

The Bush-Cheney campaign famously ran on a platform of a "humble foreign policy" and "no nation-building." As a matter of course, that was abandoned once they came into office and the Republican-controlled Congress readily discarded their Clinton-era foreign policy of restraint.

Fiscal responsibility was another common Republican refrain throughout the Clinton administration, with welfare reform and other fiscal belt-tightening topping the GOP agenda.

Upon getting the White House in 2000, though, much of that went out the window and Republicans went on to spend more frivolously than Clinton ever had, even having the temerity to create a whole new entitlement program with Medicare Part D. In the Obama-era, Republican and now Tea Party rhetoric against Big Government spending and borrowing has come back in fashion.

These politics are playing out constantly on both sides. It has become almost trite to point out the Democratic Party's betrayal of its Bush-era opposition to war and civil liberties abuses. On everything from NSA surveillance and Guantanamo Bay to pulling out of reckless wars, Democrats no longer seem like the party of peaceniks and civil libertarians.

Undoubtedly, libertarian-leaning GOP players like Rand Paul and Justin Amash (R-MI) are new and possibly game-changing figures. But the sincerity of their laissez-faire bona fides is hardly the issue, just as Obama's ostensibly sincere opposition to Bush's NSA surveillance and hawkish foreign policy had no bearing on how quickly he flip-flopped once in office.

Moreover, the GOP's hospitality to people like Paul and Amash is likely to dry up once it's a Republican's NSA and not a Democrat's.

Lord Acton warned about the tendency of power to corrupt and absolute power to corrupt absolutely. That is surely the case in Washington and especially in the executive branch, where the full burden of bureaucratic inertia and a president's brigade of unelected advisers, invariably long-standing members of the establishment whose positions don't whimsically tilt with the opinion polls, resist even genuine attempts to alter the status quo.

The public's growing libertarian proclivities may torque American politics in a more positive direction over the long term, but nobody should be surprised when, if Republicans control the White House and Congress in 2016, they slickly erase from their platforms, and the history books, this day's more libertarian posture.