Robert Draper’s New York Times magazine piece, “Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?” dutifully if rotely runs through the greatest hits: Kennedy was on MTV, Nick Gillespie wears black and quotes Jack Kerouac, people bring guns to PorcFest, David Koch exists, libertarians disagree about abortion, and Rand Paul is not the ideologue his father is.
There are some notable false notes, too: Draper describes Glenn Beck as a “partisan gunslinger” when he is if anything the opposite, a man who believes that “the Republicans have betrayed their own values” and who pronounces himself “done with them.”
Glenn Beck no longer looms so large in the liberal mind as he did when he was on Fox News. But Rand Paul does. Senator Paul gets the full Jane-Goodall-among-the-chimpanzees treatment, with Mr. Draper puzzled by his beliefs and affect both: “Last month,” he writes, “I dropped by the Russell Senate Office Building to talk to Paul about his libertarian-Republican tightrope walk. Paul, 51 and a native Texan, possesses a supple mind and is a preternaturally confident speaker for someone who has held office for only four years. At the same time, Paul is not particularly enthusiastic about the glad-handing niceties that come with the job. ‘Good to see you,’ he mumbled, then flopped down into a chair in his office’s conference room and fixed me with an impatient stare.” Perhaps Senator Paul was pondering a question that often has puzzled me: What possible good can come from a Republican sitting down with the New York Times?
The emergence of Rand Paul as one of the most popular, if not the most popular, figures in the Republican party, the current disaffection of Millennials who have been well and truly hosed by the Obama economy, abrupt shifts in public opinion on things like gay rights and marijuana legalization, the restiveness of the tea-party tendency — all of this has Mr. Draper of the Times wondering, and not without some apparent anxiety: “Would libertarians be willing to meet the GOP somewhere in the middle?”
The middle of what? The middle of a room packed with dopey old men nattering about “legitimate rape” and the lavender menace, or the middle of a party committed to sober and careful reform, with a platform organized around the rule of law, stability, and — yes — liberty? The party of Reagan and Goldwater, true, but also the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower and Taft. Senator Paul’s popularity suggests that where they might in fact meet is in the middle of a political movement that is, unlike the sentimental tendency that brought us Barack Obama and threatens us with Hillary Clinton, intellectually alive. Senators Paul and Cruz, and House insurgents such as Justin Amash, are compelling figures to many not so much because of the content of their ideas but simply because they have ideas and seem to be guided by them. After enduring these long years of sterile empathy rhetoric, perhaps we are, at long last, ready to think rather than to merely experience sensation.
What that means politically is unknowable. We could save ourselves some time and argument by noting that the American electorate gives relatively little indication that it is on the verge of a “libertarian moment,” or any other sort of philosophical moment. Psephological experience and current polling data both very strongly reiterate what any sentient person knows: The American people are incoherent and inconsistent when it comes to public policy, and they seem to have long been driven, in the main, by wishful thinking.
You do not have to be a genius to figure out how to get in front of that parade, which was a lucky thing for Barack Obama and his modest gifts. As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama twice ran on a platform that combined the worst leftovers of discredited mid-century progressivism with an economic theory that is absurd on its face. None of that mattered: His messianic pretentions soared, celebrities literally sang hymns to him, columnists wondered aloud whether he was a divine messenger and bought deeply into all that hope-and-changiness: “Many spiritually advanced people I know . . . identify Obama as a Lightworker,” wrote Mark Moford of the San Francisco Chronicle, “that rare kind of attuned being who has the ability to lead us not merely to new foreign policies or health-care plans or whatnot, but who can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet, of relating and connecting and engaging with this bizarre earthly experiment.”
All of which looks silly in retrospect. But the power of celebrity is not to be underestimated: Though both would be horrified by the comparison, the political figure whom Barack Obama most closely resembles is Sarah Palin, albeit one who began his presidency with considerably less administrative experience.
Senator Paul has in common with Barack Obama that his presidential ambitions began to stir quite early in his Senate career. But the two have very little else in common. Senator Paul’s rhetoric is not soaring, but cautious. Cautious about military adventuring, cautious about the role of narrow financial interests in driving Washington’s agenda, cautious about the power of the state, even cautious about his own ideological orientation: not libertarian, but “libertarian-ish.” He is notably cautious about what he thinks he can manage through legislation and, implicitly, as president. It is impossible to imagine him telling his supporters: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Likewise, it is difficult to imagine him unilaterally arrogating power to the Oval Office simply because Congress is not behaving to his liking or the Supreme Court is standing in his way.
Mr. Draper’s questions about libertarianism are directed toward the question of consistency: Ayn Rand believed that a fetus had no moral stature, but Ron Paul is deeply pro-life, as is his son. Mollie Hemingway has different views on marriage than does Cathy Reisenwitz. Never mind that Barack Obama cannot even manage to agree with Barack Obama on gay marriage, say, or the Export-Import Bank, or foreign policy, or domestic surveillance. Barack Obama was never about ideas, and Rand Paul libertarian-ish-ism is.
But what is truly radical about Senator Paul is not his philosophy per se but his relatively modest conception of what government can and should be. Barack Obama’s very large conception of the presidency seems to be tied up in his very large conception of himself. That should be off-putting, but it isn’t: We are drawn to largeness and to drama. The heart loves a hero.
Let’s hope the brain is in charge next time around.
— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review and the author of The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.