Magazine | July 1, 2013, Issue

Rand Paul’s Party

It wouldn’t offer much to conservatives

In The Lord of the Rings, Boromir, heir to the forces of the ancient land of Gondor, urges his allies to use the One Ring to smite the evil Sauron. Apparently Rand Paul, heir to the ancient forces of Ron Paul, is familiar with this tale. He has made news recently by urging his allies to use what he considers to be the political equivalent of the One Ring, which, like its fantasy cousin, will bring certain victory.

That Ring is “libertarian Republicanism.” If only conservatives were more tolerant on social issues and less supportive of U.S. military involvement overseas, Paul argues, they could win elections in blue states and nationwide. “I don’t think we need to dilute our message of low taxes, less regulation, and balanced budgets to win in California,” he recently said at the Reagan Library.

In LOTR, the reader knows Boromir is offering his friends a fatal temptation. But those who listen to Paul have no such advance knowledge regarding his advice. Is he right, or is this too good to be true?

Let’s begin with the case that libertarian Republicans make, a tale that often starts with blue-state governors. They remind us that states well outside the reach of GOP presidential candidates have in the last decade elected pro-choice Republicans as governors. Republicans such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Pataki, Mitt Romney, and Linda Lingle have won statewide in California, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, and even Barack Obama’s Hawaii. All ran as fiscal conservatives and social moderates, and all succeeded where GOP presidential nominees got creamed.

The story then comes to the present day. Look around you, they say. You all know people just like yourselves: educated; hard workers; makers, not takers. They like low taxes and smaller government. But your friends think conservatives are weird. Why? Because they are turned off by the GOP’s fondness for foreign military adventure and disagreements on gay marriage. Remove those barriers and — voilà! — an instant new voting bloc appears, just as it did for the blue-state GOP governors.

It’s true that in deep-blue states, virtually every Republican who wins statewide is pro-choice and socially moderate — although New Jersey’s Chris Christie stands out as a counterexample. But it is also true that in the swing “purple” states, pro-life Republicans often win for governor. Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania are all currently run by socially conservative GOP governors, and the most recent GOP governors of Colorado, Minnesota, and New Hampshire held similar views. Returns from the last three presidential elections show that it will be much easier to win these purple states than the deep-blue ones. So doesn’t it make more sense to copy the winning strategies of their governors?

More important from a libertarian-Republican perspective, none of the deep-blue-state governors was a model of the libertarian fiscal policy preferred by Paul and his backers. Romney pushed through Romneycare; Schwarzenegger turned to the left after two years in office, going so far as to hire the former executive director of the state’s Democratic party to be his chief of staff. Pataki, Romney, Schwarzenegger, and others championed regional greenhouse-gas-limitation pacts to combat global warming. None cut government by anywhere near as much as Senator Paul suggests in his proposed budget.

#page#For these governors, “fiscal conservatism” meant running a tight ship within the prevailing center-left consensus in their states. If they provide a model of a “libertarian Republican” future, their fiscal apostasy must be accounted for.

That’s where the poll data come in. A careful look at a recent major poll, the 2011 Beyond Red vs. Blue analysis from the Pew Research Center, explains why these governors sound like neo-libertarians but act like regular liberals.

The Pew poll broke down the electorate into component groups based on respondents’ demographics and political attitudes. Two of the eight voting groups they identified help to explain why libertarians often think there is an easily reachable new constituency for limited government. These two groups were called Post-Moderns and Libertarians. Libertarians make up 10 percent of registered voters, while Post-Moderns make up 14 percent.

Libertarians and Post-Moderns are very similar demographically. They are nearly identical in terms of college completion (37 and 41 percent, respectively), income (39 and 34 percent have incomes above $75,000), being employed (52 and 51 percent), and being a parent (32 and 34 percent). Both groups are also very likely to live in cities or suburbs, and they are among the least religious groups in the survey (only Solid Liberals are less religious than these two groups). Age is the only significant demographic difference between them: Post-Moderns are mainly under 50, while Libertarians are evenly split.

They also share many important beliefs and political attributes. They strongly believe that Americans can still advance through hard work, and they are the groups likeliest to believe that Wall Street helps America more than it hurts. While Libertarians are a bit more socially conservative than Post-Moderns, probably because they are older, Post-Moderns fit the libertarian-Republican pattern: Over three-quarters favor gay marriage, and similar numbers support legal abortion and believe illegal immigrants should have a path to citizenship. Both groups also perceive themselves as politically independent: Over 60 percent of each group describe themselves that way.

If one looked only at these characteristics, one could easily believe the libertarian-Republican fable. But the two groups are very different when it comes to current politics. Post-Moderns overwhelmingly like Obama and the Democrats; Libertarians don’t like him, and vote Republican. The reason is that Post-Moderns agree with the modern Democratic party on a range of matters well beyond social issues.

Post-Moderns like unions (50 percent favorable), Obamacare (only 16 percent think it will have mainly a bad effect), and the U.N. (60 percent favorable). They are much less likely than Libertarians to say government should be smaller (85 percent vs. 55 percent), and are significantly less likely to say that cutting major programs should be the main way to cut the deficit (47 percent vs. 8 percent). They much prefer expanding alternative energy (79 percent) to producing more fossil fuels (13 percent). And they are more likely than Libertarians to support gun control (54 percent vs. 18 percent) and government efforts to fight childhood obesity (62 percent vs. 24 percent).

Compare their beliefs with those of Senator Paul. He proposes dramatically cutting major entitlement programs. He proposes eliminating foreign aid. He champions fossil-fuel production. He is, in the Pew typology, a typical Libertarian. He has little in common with the Post-Moderns he seeks to attract.

These differences follow through to the social issues. Senator Paul is pro-life. He favors giving states the authority to define marriage as they want, but he does not favor same-sex marriage. He is opposed to gun control. And his views on immigration are far from those held by Post-Moderns. In short, on a range of issues, Senator Paul himself is not the sort of person that Post-Moderns will flock to.

These data do, however, explain why pro-choice deep-blue-state GOP governors act the way they do. The states they govern have much higher concentrations of Post-Modern voters than do the rest of the country. These governors’ brand of pro-wealth-creation, pro-redistributive-economics politics is precisely what these voters want. The governors’ failure to enact the sort of economic policies favored by libertarians was not a betrayal of their followers; it was a faithful implementation of their constituents’ beliefs.

The heroes in LOTR resist Boromir’s blandishments. Guided by Gandalf’s wisdom and Frodo’s courage, they defeat Sauron by taking the less obvious, but ultimately more successful, course. Conservative Republicans looking for political heroism and success would be well served by following their example and ignoring Paul’s pyrite.

– Mr. Olsen is a vice president of the American Enterprise Institute.

Henry Olsen — Mr. Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, an editor at, and the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism.

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