Mike Needham’s recent NRO piece, “What Conservatives Want: It’s not just about picking the right side,” gives me an excuse to comment on Kevin Williamson’s Politico Magazine article published earlier in March.
According to Kevin, Senator Rand Paul has no chance of win the presidency because he’s serious about making the necessary but tough reforms to Medicare, Social Security, Obamacare, and other major drivers of our federal debt. Americans ultimately value short-term government handouts over long-term fiscal health, Kevin argues. He made the same case about the Ryan budget last week, calling it pretty much dead on arrival.
He may be right about the immediate political climate (even there, I’m not entirely sure), but I think he is too pessimistic about longer-term prospects of Paul’s policy ideas. While I am not as optimistic as Nick Gillespie that a recent rising American libertarian streak foreshadows a possible Paul presidency, I do think Kevin shouldn’t dismiss the idea that the electoral success and subsequent popularity of lawmakers like Senators Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Ted Cruz, or like Representatives Matt Salmon, Justin Amash, and Thomas Massie, is a harbinger of a major change in what people expect from their politicians.
Americans have lost their taste for the slop that the Republican party has been serving for years. Milquetoast promises about smaller government inevitably precede GOP votes for ever bigger government – in the bedroom and in the boardroom.
I also agree with Gillespie that Paul has an unusual appeal. The plucky senator from Kentucky makes waves because he is not your typical Republican: Where others cower from political controversy, in rhetoric and in practice, Paul can be counted on to deliver on the many issues that people care about. Gillespie writes:
Whether or not the Kentucky Republican actually wins the Republican nomination, much less the White House, is besides the point. The question is whether the politics of the future will be the same as the politics of the present. “I don’t want to be just one thing,” explains one of the protagonists in Divergent. “I can’t be. I want to be brave, and I want to be selfless, intelligent, and honest and kind.” If anything explains Rand Paul’s rising profile, it’s precisely his ability to be more than just one thing—a social conservative, a civil libertarian, a budget cutter, a decentralizer, and more. There’s no reason to fear— and every reason to promote—such divergence in our elected representatives.
This is great. But that’s not the only important trait or even the most important trait that Senator Paul and others brings to the table. In fact, my interest in Paul does not stem from a broad agreement with him on each policy issue — there’s a lot I disagree with him on. Rather, his appeal stems from the impact his bold, new ideas may have on the Republican status quo — and ultimately on America. Sure, he gives a voice to many of the issues that I (and more Americans than many appreciate) like, but more important, he is forcing a conversation that wouldn’t happen without him. At the same time, he and guys like Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Justin Amash are holding other Republicans’ feet to the fire, making it harder for legislators to say one thing and do another without us noticing.
Senator Paul and his fellow band of renegades are undeniably creating conflict in the short term, but it’s for the long-term benefit of the Republican party. Far from a menace to Republicans, these guys’ brash challenges may be the only way to save the ailing elephants. (By the way, I believe that some on the left, like Senator Ron Wyden, serve the same function for the Democrats.) Besides, not changing the path we’re on in the name of avoiding friction is unacceptable and gravely irresponsible.
The rise of the principled and/or disruptive politicians, I believe, is helping rebuilding the image of the Republican party. Ideas are what matter and ideals are what change the world. In fact, every transformative policy change, whether from the left or the right, can be traced to a process of ideological change that culminates with people fighting for those ideas and politicians being willing to run with them. It often takes years to get a result but radical changes do happen — think about the deregulation wave of the 1970s.
I believe that Nobel Prize winner and intellectual giant Friedrich Hayek was right in his classic essay, “The Intellectuals and Socialism”:
We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage. What we lack is a liberal Utopia, a program which seems neither a mere defense of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism which does not spare the susceptibilities of the mighty (including the trade unions), which is not too severely practical, and which does not confine itself to what appears today as politically possible. We need intellectual leaders who are willing to work for an ideal, however small may be the prospects of its early realization. They must be men who are willing to stick to principles and to fight for their full realization, however remote.
When Hayek talks about intellectual leaders’ role in shaping opinion and policy, sometimes these leaders happen to be political leaders. Other times, politicians merely borrow the ideas of others and apply them in a way that may have an unexpected impact. Under the right circumstances, what seemed politically impossible before becomes not only possible but even politically inevitable, as Milton Friedman used to say. This, I believe, may very well be what we are witnessing with Paul, Amash, and others today.
Now detractors claim that bold ideas undermine the large scale electoral Republican victory these agitators needs to realize their vision. To that, I say: maybe or maybe not.
One factor that still undermines Republican political fortunes is a healthy skepticism many Americans have about Republicans in power. Exhibit A: The Bush years. Republicans had more than a majority and plenty of room to change our future, but they did little to tackle bloated entitlement programs, put an end to cronyism, and restore a free society. As Needham says:
The Bush years — No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, massive earmarking and food-stamp spending, and bank bailouts — serve as a vivid reminder that conservative policy suffers when the principal objective is to maintain political power.
In a recent debate over at AEI, Chris Chocola, the president of the Club for Growth, said it the best when he asked: “What good is a majority if you aren’t going to use it? What good is being part of a team, if the team is the problem?” I agree — and would go further, to say that doing nothing or doing bad things with the majority has serious consequences. In this case, those consequences would be President Obama and his awful policies.
Need more evidence? Exhibit B: Republicans’ voting record since Obama’s election has continued to indicate an inconsistent commitment to free-market principles. They fight against the debt ceiling, but they also fight to get rid of sequestration. They fight against food stamps, but they vote for the farm subsidies. They complain about Solyndra, but don’t go all the way to end the program (which, by the way, began in the Bush years). They rail against cronyism, unless it serves special interests they like. They support spending cuts in theory, but refuse to publicly list the programs they would personally cut, no matter how small. They voted multiple times to repeal Obamacare, but now appear content with mere cosmetic fixes. Needham makes this point well, highlighting the survival of the Export-Import Bank as one example.
Now, unless I am mistaken, this behavior hasn’t been particularly politically successful. Sure, Republicans don’t hold the reins of power, but people just don’t believe that these same politicians will suddenly become the brave defenders of free-market policies once they get a majority.
Rand Paul and the other rebels are changing that dynamic. By fighting for and championing alternatives to existing policies that may seem politically impossible now, they are doing their part to live by Hayek’s and Friedman’s mantra. By keeping important ideas and ideals alive, you may be surprised to find that they become politically acceptable sooner rather than later. We don’t need everyone to identify as libertarians for this to happen, and the power of ideas is such that we don’t always need a crisis of epic proportions to get us out of this mess, as Kevin believes.
Now, after my case for relative optimism, I’ll go back to fighting for the termination of big-government programs I despair of ever defeating.