It seems like establishment Republicans will do just about anything to win elections. In 2007, Florida governor Charlie Crist, channeling Al Gore, signed executive orders unilaterally regulating greenhouse-gas emissions in the state. Congressional Republicans later passed Medicare Part D — a massive expansion of a broken, bankrupt entitlement — to “take health care off the table.” In 2008, George W. Bush bailed out Wall Street with $700 billion in borrowed money and (in his own words) “abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system.” But every time Republicans have embraced intrusive, more expensive government, they have degraded their brand, particularly with the same independence-minded voters responsible for the only two Republican majorities that most living Americans have ever experienced.
Now, as the Republican establishment proceeds to circle its wagons around Mitt Romney, GOP leaders worry that the new young voters who have been brought into the Republican presidential-primary process by the unapologetically libertarian Ron Paul might just go back home — or, worse still, go third-party and split the anti-Obama vote, enabling the failing Democratic president to eke out a second term.
Republicans, as I mentioned, have tried just about everything to win elections. So why not try freedom?
Back in 2008, President Obama was carried into the White House by a tidal wave of some 15 million new voters. A staggering 65 percent of those first-time voters were under the age of 30, members of the so-called millennial generation. This cohort overwhelmingly supported President Obama, by a margin of 66 to 32 percent, and self-identified as Democrats over Republicans by a similar margin, 60 to 32 percent.
Not only is this 50 million–member legion critical to the reelection of President Obama, it represents the future beyond Obama. The millennials represented 18 percent of the electorate in 2008, but that percentage could rise to one in four voters in 2012. If this alignment becomes permanent, it will be devastating to future GOP candidates.
Only one current GOP presidential candidate has wide appeal among millennials: Ron Paul. The 76-year-old Paul connects with young voters because he is perceived as an authentic and principled candidate and represents a fundamental challenge to the political establishment. He also offers clear answers to millennials’ concerns about the weak economy and represents a revolution against Washington’s broken political culture.
Today, these Paulistas are enthusiastic and energized; but will they stick around if Paul fails to win the Republican nomination? Can the GOP keep these young libertarians in the GOP tent? The answer is yes, maybe — if the GOP is ready to commit to a consistent vision of limited government and not just pay it lip service come election time.
The millennials embraced Obama because he symbolized a fundamental change from business as usual. Obama promised a new way in Washington and represented a complete break from the policies of President Bush. He promised fiscal responsibility and transparency. Could Barack Obama have pulled off this extraordinary political feat without the big-government conservatism of John McCain as a foil? Probably not.
But that was 2008. According to Gallup’s weekly tracking poll, the president’s job approval has fallen from 75 percent to 53 percent since Jan. 19, 2009, among those 18 to 29 years old. According to a recent Harvard survey, young people, by a proportion of four to one, believe the country is heading in the wrong direction.
While the millennials still hold the president personally in high regard, his economic policies have been catastrophic for them. As the under-30s leave college with record-high student-loan burdens, they enter a devastated job market. Unemployment for those aged 16 to 24 hovers over 18 percent, and almost 10 percent of those 25 to 29 are unemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The annual unemployment rate for those 16 to 24 last year was far higher than the national averages, and was actually the highest youth-unemployment rate since these figures began being recorded in 1948. While the millennials are no longer excited about Obama and the Democrats, they still need to be won over, and delivering on economic opportunity ought to be central to Republicans’ efforts in this regard. Author and demographics expert Joel Kotkin, looking back at a previous young generation, observed: “One of the reasons why the [Baby] Boomers and even more so the [Generation] Xers became conservative is because Reagan delivered for them.” That is, the Reagan economy allowed young Americans to pursue their dreams.
Ron Paul’s vision of free markets and fiscal discipline inspires new hope for a strong economy built on freedom and individual opportunity. Paul’s candidacy is built on the apparently novel notion that the government should be held accountable, and limited in its size and reach by the Constitution. These are the same values that inspire tea partiers: opposition to the failed policies of tax, spend, borrow, and print. No to crony capitalism; no to the Federal Reserve’s trashing of the dollar; no to $1.5 trillion deficits. Yes to a renewed commitment to individual liberty. If this sounds radical, it is. At least it was in 1776, when such anti-establishment radicals as Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, and Madison espoused the same values and overthrew the established order.
What would a synthesis of Paul’s principles with the traditions of the GOP actually look like? Ron Paul’s son, Sen. Rand Paul, described what it could be back in August 2010, when he was in the middle of a successful tea-party challenge to the Republican establishment: “I consider myself a constitutional conservative, which I take to mean a conservative who actually believes in smaller government and more individual freedom. The libertarian principles of limited government, self-reliance, and respect for the Constitution are embedded within my constitutional conservatism. . . . I also believe that the common bond of liberty can unite Americans and build a winning political coalition to stand up against big-government elites in both parties while reclaiming our freedom and prosperity.”
This is the sort of constitutional conservatism that is propelling the Ron Paul revolution and inspiring the millennials. In the first two primaries, nearly half of all votes from those under 30 went to Paul. His final margin of victory in the under-30 demographic in New Hampshire was a whopping 22 points. Associated Press exit interviews found that these voters were motivated primarily by economic issues.
And these issues are giving the Paul candidacy momentum. While Mitt Romney won the same 25 percent of the Iowa vote in 2008 and 2012, Paul’s margin surged from 10 percent to 21 percent. In New Hampshire, Romney’s margin increased by seven points, to 39 percent, between 2008 and 2012; but Paul’s vote jumped by 15 points.
Millennials are right not to trust the Republican and Democratic political establishments, which form a power structure that libertarians Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie refer to as a “duopoly.” And it’s not surprising that they feel this way. This, after all, is the generation that will have to pick up the tab for the bipartisan collusion in support of bigger government. They have enough to worry about, with one albatross after another being hung around their necks: college-loan payments and no jobs. Yet now they have to cope with the massive intergenerational transfer of wealth required to pay for someone else’s retirement and a $15 trillion national debt.
Young people want big and bold solutions, because they understand you cannot fix a big problem by simply tinkering at the edges. A recent Reason-Rupe public-opinion survey found that millennials overwhelmingly (86 percent) favor a hard cap on government spending. Three out of four go further and support a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. And a 62 percent majority favor spending cuts as the primary way to reduce the national debt.
Two other cornerstones of Paul’s candidacy appeal to the millennials: a more humble, noninterventionist foreign policy and checking the power of the Federal Reserve. I don’t pretend to know how to unite Paulistas with the nation-building, hyper-interventionist wing of the GOP, but we all might consider the words of Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who shocked the Washington establishment with a statement of the obvious: “The most significant threat to our national security is our debt.” We can’t keep spending money we don’t have, and systemic economic failure is no one’s idea of sound national-security policy. Today, when 40 cents of every federal dollar is borrowed, all parts of the federal budget, including the military, need to be downsized.
And while “End the Fed” is not yet part of the official GOP platform, a growing number of Republicans are joining Ron Paul’s commitment to a strong dollar and putting a stop to the government financing of new spending with the Fed’s printing press. Thanks to Paul, one of America’s most economically pernicious institutions is now under public scrutiny for the first time in history.
Unlike many of the recycled figures in the GOP field, Ron Paul comes across as authentic: He is who he is, and he has held the same policy positions for decades. He anticipated much of the economic mess we are now in. He is not afraid to challenge the political establishment. The GOP should learn from this, and learn to love a new generation of constitutional conservatives who can make the GOP relevant in 2012 and beyond.
Come on, Grand Old Party. Try freedom.
– Mr. Kibbe is the president of the non-profit organization FreedomWorks and co-author, with Dick Armey, of Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto.