The question before Senator Rand Paul is whether Republican primary voters — and voters in the general electorate, if it should come to that — are in the market for libertarianism by the bushel or measured out with coffee spoons.
For those seeking a general validation of libertarian principle as the guiding light of the Republican party and the conservative movement, there’s no improving on a man called “Rand” who launched his campaign at a hotel called “Galt.” But the fact that there is no improving on him is no guarantee that Senator Paul can count on the enthusiastic support of doctrinaire libertarians, who are a cranky bunch, extraordinarily particular and already grumbling that the gentleman from Kentucky is not ready to go the full Rothbard — or even as far as his cult-figure father did.
When my friend Ramesh Ponnuru writes that the senator seems to be “of two minds” about judicial power — and when similar, more worrisome criticisms are made of Senator Paul’s foreign-policy views — that seems to me correct, but as a purely political matter not necessarily a bad thing. The American public is of two minds about a great many things, too, and has rarely punished a candidate for lack of absolute intellectual consistency. Pandering and flip-flopping? That’s one way to put it. But only the most hopeless sort of ideologue refuses to accommodate the fact that there is a limited real range for effective political action, and that range is defined by what the electorate is willing to accept. There is much to be done, and one can hardly blame Senator Paul for fishing where they’re biting.
All that assumes that Republicans are in fact in the market for radical change, that they’re buying libertarianism by the bushel. That is certainly the impression one gets from talk-radio and cable-news commentators, who hold John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to be public enemies No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, and from the persistence of the tea-party movement, which is sustained not by those looking for an alternative to Democratic leadership but by those looking for an alternative to Republican leadership in its current character.It’s a tricky dance. If Senator Paul’s libertarianism means trying to get primary voters and the general electorate to understand Econ 101 and the dismal consequent realities, then that will be a very hard sell. If it means partial personal redemption from the things that people do not like about the Republican party at large, rallying some of the populists against corporate welfare and incautious foreign commitments, articulating a program of criminal-justice reform that earns him a second look among some constituencies generally hostile to Republicans, and offering a convincing economic program that goes beyond traditional Republican bracket diddling, then he might have something.
But what if Republican voters are looking only for a spoonful of what Senator Paul is selling? What if they are not Friedmanite foxes but Hayekian hedgehogs?
If you are, for example, a Republican primary voter only mildly interested in a general tilt in the libertarian direction but intensely interested in a free-market solution to our deepening health-care quandary, or intensely interested in rolling back the domination of government by public-sector interest groups, then you might enjoy a speech from Rand Paul but pull the lever for Bobby Jindal, a Republican who has actually reformed a health-care system, or Scott Walker, a Republican who has actually put a gleeful boot on the necks of bawling union goons. Others might calculate that the real action is in the maddening piecemeal efforts under way in Congress and that the best way of leaving congressional Republicans relatively free to maneuver there is to choose a Republican presidential candidate who is attractive and unobjectionable rather than cathartic, in which case they might find themselves nodding along to the uplifting strains of Marco Rubio.
This is a critical consideration, given that if a Republican should win in 2016, he will spend much (probably most, possibly all) of his term occupied with undoing the damage done by the Obama administration, not as a matter of generalities but jot and tittle. None of the subjects that will require immediate and deep attention — health care, regulation, fiscal imbalance, and foreign policy — is a matter for the application of general principles, even if those principles are very good ones. The Democrats were willing to forfeit their congressional majority and hobble the Obama administration’s domestic agenda to do one big thing — Obamacare — and Republicans probably will have to risk paying a similar price for achieving one big thing, or possibly a handful. “I want to return America to constitutional government” is a very fine sentiment — so was “Hope and Change” — but “Here’s how we should reform health care” is a program.
Presidential campaigns can seem endless, but they are not. There are only so many evenings, mornings, afternoons — so keep in mind those coffee spoons.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.