After a devastating loss in the November presidential election, it’s no surprise that Republicans are playing the blame game.

At the March 14-16 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington D.C., tensions between the different factions of the Republican Party became bitterly clear, most notably in the confrontations between Senator Rand Paul and the GOP establishment.

“The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered,” the Kentucky Republican said at CPAC. “Our party is encumbered by an inconsistent approach to freedom. The new GOP will need to embrace liberty in both the economic and the personal sphere. If we’re going to have a Republican Party that can win, liberty needs to be the backbone of the GOP.”

Traditional conservatives haven’t hesitated to parry the thrusts of Paul and his fellow libertarian Republicans. Arizona Senator John McCain was quick to brush off Paul’s recent Senate filibuster, which held up the nomination of John Brennan as CIA Director over the Obama administration’s drone policy.

“The country needs more Senators who care about liberty,” McCain said, quoting The Wall Street Journal. “But if Mr. Paul wants to be taken seriously, he needs to do more than pull political stunts that fire up impressionable libertarian kids in their college dorms. He needs to know what he is talking about.”

There have long been philosophical, ideological and policy tensions between the three main wings of the GOP—neoconservatives, social conservatives and libertarians. CMC Associate Professor of Government Jon Shields believes these factions have been in constant competition for control of the party for several decades.

“In a way, these tensions have always existed in the [modern] Republican Party because the party is built around these different factions that don’t share common philosophical grounds and objectives,” Shields said. “One of the big challenges of the party is keeping all of the various parts happy, which is a very difficult undertaking.”

This enduring tension within the GOP—between an interventionist foreign policy (one that abhors appeasing tyrants abroad) and the libertarian preference for a more defensive policy (one that abhors entangling military expeditions)—predictably grows when triggering events occur. Professor Shields points to the Afghan and Iraqi Wars as a recent trigger in the current feud between neoconservatives and libertarians for control of the GOP.

“In the Bush years, you really saw the ascendance of foreign policy hawks in his administration, and the libertarians really disliked that—that was big government par excellence,” Shields said. “When the war went badly, it helped those in the party who wanted to reduce the size of government, so now they have more leverage than they once did, and neoconservatives are in a tough spot.”

However, Shields warns against libertarians overreaching while they have popular support.

“Let’s fight Obamacare, let’s not let this Leviathan get any larger—I think [libertarians] can generate some political sympathy for that,” Shields said. “But they can’t seriously talk about getting rid of social security or Medicare—that goes nowhere fast. I think their best hope is to try to limit government, cut taxes, reduce the size somewhat and reform entitlements that make them more sustainable.”

While libertarians appear to have the momentary upper hand, alienating the other wings of the party—as Paul has done—is certainly not in the party’s best long-term interest. Rather, if Republicans want a legitimate shot at winning in 2016, they need to find a way to unite each group under the GOP banner.

Republicans need look no farther than 1980 to find the recipe for success. Ronald Reagan successfully appealed to libertarians with his fiscal policies, to neoconservatives with his defense and foreign policies, and to social conservatives with his perspectives on social issues and a restrained judiciary. Reagan famously described the “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Perhaps that is a nice place to start as the GOP considers its future.

Categories: Feature
  • ze

    A very weak and silly article, Brad. You are, by no means, a conservative.

    Your defense of McCain for his defense of the Obama administration and John Brennan is unfortunate. None of those men believe in the rule of law, on which this country was founded, and your apologetic attitude toward all of them betrays a similar view. There is nothing conservative about letting civil servants decide to drone bomb American citizens with impunity. That is the epitome of big government. They are civil servants, not rulers.

    Likewise, calling an interventionist foreign policy “one that abhors appeasing tyrants abroad” is laughable. You must be censoring yourself if you believe that is what intervention is. The U.S. government has an awful track record of propping up tyrants before cutting them down and replacing them. U.S. interventionism is not the crusade for democracy you fantasize it to be, but rather the root of so much blow-back. Indeed, our wars are “big government par excellence,” and there is nothing conservative about wasteful spending that takes place. Please, for your own sake, read a history book.

    Rand Paul has not “alienated the other wings of the party.” America is war-weary from NeoCon policies. Americans have never enjoyed the finger-wagging of the holier-than-thou. If you think the Republican Party’s future is in the likes of NeoCons McCain and Romney, or moral crusaders like Santorum, you are just as deluded and doomed as they are. Please, stop waving the Reagan flag. He was all rhetoric. He was very much pro-big government and spending.

    You will never win moderates, or even true conservatives, who believe in limited government all around with this kind of writing. Keep up these masturbatory exercises of lauding and apologizing for your party of choice, but you’re selling yourself out to politicians who have signed the Patriot Act, the NDAA, and believe in drone bombing Americans without due process.

    • CMCer #14444

      “You are, by no means, a true conservative.” A tired libertarian jab, indeed. I find it remarkable that, after saying this, you have the (blind) courage to say that libertarians are not alienating other Republicans (just a few lines down!). You were certainly blessed with the gift of irony ad nauseum. Bravo for making the author’s point exceptionally clear!

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