Libertarian Republicans vs. “real” Republicans

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rep. Justin Amash (R.-Mich.)

When Michigan businessman Brian Ellis declared he would primary incumbent Republican Congressman Justin Amash he told the Washington Free Beacon, “Justin Amash is not a conservative Republican.”

This is not the first time a libertarian-leaning member of Congress has been accused of not being sufficiently conservative or Republican by the GOP establishment.

When Rand Paul ran for the U.S. Senate in 2010, former Vice President Dick Cheney endorsed Paul’s opponent Trey Grayson as the “real conservative.” Two years later, Cheney’s “real conservative” would become the head of a Democratic Super PAC.

When Thomas Massie ran for Kentucky’s 4th congressional district in 2012 he was hailed as the “next Rand Paul.” But local Republican chairman Kevin Sell emphasized, “This seat has been recently held by two great Americans: Jim Bunning and Geoff Davis. Neither of these fine men were libertarians.” He added, “If the libertarians want this seat, they should have someone run as a libertarian.”

As a congressman, Massie would become such a conservative Republican that he would be accused of being part of the “Conservative ‘Hell No’ Caucus” because he consistently voted against bills that spent too much or were unconstitutional.

These accusations are nothing new. For at least four years now, the GOP establishment has insisted that libertarian Republicans like Massie, Paul and Amash are not real Republicans.

And they have a point.

In the recent past, real Republicans talked about shrinking government but did the exact opposite. Real Republicans paid the Constitution lip service but trashed the Bill of Rights. Real Republicans claimed to be for individual liberty and federalism but voted for Washington control. Real Republicans said they supported local autonomy in education while promoting national standards. Real Republicans said they wanted to balance the budget but passed plans that would increase the annual budget and our debt.

Real Republicans, ultimately, however differently they do it from Democrats, protect and promote the Washington status quo.

So yes, in this big government, anti-liberty sense, the GOP establishment critics of Amash, Paul and Massie are far more Republican than their targets. Only the most blindingly hypocritical of “conservative” Republicans would find this something to be proud of.

In an August profile of Massie, the Wall Street Journal made the distinction:

“Mr. Massie, 42 years old, represents a potent strain of small-government conservatism. He and his colleagues, unlike some of their predecessors, didn’t come to Washington content to trim government. Instead, they believe wide swaths of what government does need to be reconsidered…”

What libertarian conservative leaders are doing that other Republicans can’t even comprehend, is apply the traditionally conservative principle of individual liberty—the Founders’ vision, which also inspired Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan—to, well, pretty much everything. Foreign policy, civil liberties, drug laws, social issues our prison systemlibertarian Republicans are thinking outside the box in ways that might upset the old guard but that could also feasibly bring about the type of limited government “real Republicans” have only paid lip service to.

The Washington Post’s Radley Balko noted of the libertarian Republican approach to the war on drugs recently:

To be fair, much of the current momentum to roll back the excesses of the drug war has been due to the efforts of Republicans such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). Unfortunately, a recent series of stories illustrates how, for a good chunk of the GOP caucus, it will always be 1986.

When it comes to suppressing voting rights, fighting prison rape or protecting an old cattle rancher facing off with a federal agency, House Republicans are all about fighting off the federal shock troops and preserving “states’ rights…” But when it comes to letting sick people get some relief from smoking a plant, the federal government reigns supreme. If we need to send some battle-clad SWAT cops in to make an example of cancer patients and hippie mom-and-pop marijuana dispensaries, so be it.

I’d love to see a more culturally liberal GOP. But I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. Paul, Lee and Massie, for example, are all still staunchly anti-abortion, and all oppose gay marriage. This new crop of Republicans isn’t asking the party to change its principles so much as it’s merely asking the party to apply those principles consistently.

As Balko observes, Paul, Lee, Massie and Amash have all caused their party to rethink the war on drugs. They have also led the way in calling for a more tolerant GOP on social issues, even as pro-life, conservative Christians who believe in traditional marriage.

Having these distinct, albeit nuanced and somewhat unconventional conservative positions as libertarian Republicans has also made the party attractive to more young people, independents, progressives and minorities than any conventional Republican has been able to achieve in a long time. The GOP desperately needs to expand beyond its current base and libertarian Republicans offer the only recognizably conservative path to do so.

When establishment GOP types say that Amash, Paul or Massie are outside the mainstream what they are really revealing is how out of step they are. The only things most of these real Republicans can promise voters is more government, debt, war and other Bush-Cheney remnants the general public has soured on and that promise to be a detriment to the Republican Party in 2014, 2016 and beyond.

Simply being anti-Obama is not enough. The Republican Party must be something different from what it has been to survive, win elections, and frankly, to become substantively conservative. The Bush years didn’t work, for conservatives or most Americans.

But, those stuck in the past—as they love to point out—are indeed your “real” Republicans.

For anyone who cares about limiting government, they are also a real problem.


Disclosure: I co-authored Senator Rand Paul’s 2011 book The Tea Party Goes to Washington.