Much has been made of the Republican Party’s internal struggle regarding how to brand itself going forward, while recovering from the loss of the last election. Some, such as former GOP congressman and political pundit Joe Scarborough, have looked at the last election as proof that traditional conservatism is dead and must be repackaged as “Liberalism lite,” in the tradition of Dwight Eisenhower. Others, like Sen. Rand Paul, see the “stale and moss-covered” GOP as needing to become a party more libertarian, with more emphasis on individualism. Social Conservatives, led by former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, worry that the party will abandon its moral tradition were it to be led down the libertarian path. And the John McCain wing of the party, which includes the “Establishment,” doesn’t seem to think any real change is necessary, other than tactical and branding changes.
But as much as the conventional wisdom is that the current struggle is one that will redefine the GOP, conservative columnist George Will pointed out Sunday that libertarian free-market conservatives and social conservatives have been having this argument since the fifties. Reagan successfully fused the two, and that was a big part of his electoral success. The question then becomes how to merge the two successfully (à la Reagan) and make the Republican Party a winning one again.
At CPAC last week, former Democratic Congressman Artur Davis spoke about the electoral problems facing conservatives. He said, “…for voters who see the world the way we do, [we] made an effective argument…But you still don’t get to a majority. And the ones who are left…need to hear…that our values will work for their lives and circumstances.” He pointed out that the Republicans “…did not have the self-confidence to talk about how our policies reduce poverty and lift the poor out of dependency.” But for a movement that is moving steadily in the direction of individualism, and what Will called “the rise of the libertarian strand of Republicanism,” the question remains what place anti-poverty legislation has in this changing party.
Among the most well-received speeches at CPAC was a speech that almost wasn’t given. Rick Santorum, who spoke on Friday, almost cancelled his speech after his nephew passed away the night before. Instead, he decided to come and deliver a different speech from the one he originally prepared, rewriting it hours before its delivery. He gave a strong defense of traditional conservative values, going so far as to say to the libertarian wing, which champions individual liberty even at the expense of traditional values, that, “for those in our movement, who want to abandon our country’s moral underpinnings, so we can win…what does it profit a movement to gain the country and lose our own soul?” He spoke of the need to find the “why” in life for Americans, beyond personal gratification, and to help those who need help, because that is part of the aforementioned “why.” He invoked the words of Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl, who said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how,” as a way of explaining the importance of helping the poor.
The former Pennsylvania senator wasn’t the only social conservatism champion at the conference, either. Senator Marco Rubio, who finished a close second to Rand Paul in the CPAC straw poll (Santorum finished a distant third) spoke to a standing ovation about the need to talk about both the negative effect the breakdown of the family is having on America, and the responsibilities Americans have to take care of each other.
So, we must figure out how to reconcile the two: the rising strand of libertarian thought in the GOP, and the age-old values that are so important to its identity, and to the country going forward.
Truthfully, it isn’t really all that hard to find a happy medium. The popularity of Paul, who, like his father, former congressman Ron Paul, is the strong libertarian influence in the Republican Party, has made the rest of the party realize that the language of libertarianism currently speaks to the American people. But, unlike his father, the younger, less radical Paul speaks about this in a different context. When he speaks the language of libertarianism, he speaks not about individualism (which is the principle of self-reliance), but about the rights of the individual. This little difference is where the common ground can be found.
Santorum, who at times was derided by the elder Paul’s followers as a “collectivist,” has long been a champion of anti-poverty legislation. But, as Rubio made clear in his speech as well, the most efficient way to help the poor is by fostering strong families and moral values. Santorum’s book, written while a member of Senate leadership, as he wrote in the preface “originally conceived…would have focused exclusively on the poor in America.” That book is titled “It Takes a Family” — because the best way to help the poor in America is by strengthening the family, not by substituting for it, as liberals believe.
So there isn’t all that much daylight between those who want freedom for individuals to succeed, as Artur Davis said, because “there is nothing [anyone] can’t do if we give them the freedom to rise on their own,” and those who believe, as Marco Rubio made clear, that “we should recognize that we do have obligations to each other. In addition to our individual rights are individual obligations to each other, but not through government, through community.”
These two wings are not far apart at all. What remains to be seen is if they can repackage and sell this conservatism as a conservatism that wins.