The Republican Crackup The libertarian and conservative factions of the old Reagan coalition are marching to different drummers


"If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. … The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom, and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is. … I think that libertarianism and conservatism are traveling the same path."

~ President Ronald Reagan

That quotation was appropriately reprinted on the first page of the official program for the Conservative Leadership Conference in Reno last weekend, an event that sought to rebuild the largely frayed conservative/libertarian Reagan coalition in time to spare the country from a Hillary Clinton presidency. I spoke to the group about my exit from the Republican Party, but after listening to other speakers and attendees gathered for the three-day event, I must conclude that Reagan’s words no longer ring true.

Conservatives and libertarians are marching to different drummers, going on different paths going in opposite directions. The libertarians still are committed to "less government interference" and "less centralized authority," but conservatives these days are more interested in building an all-powerful central government to wage war on real and perceived enemies at home and abroad. Conservatives use the word "freedom" while they wax poetic about American military might. But the policies they promote show no sign of trusting individual Americans to live their lives as they please and every sign of trusting the government to do what is best. During the Cold War, an inspiring leader such as Reagan was able to keep internal peace, as both factions battled their mutual enemies: the Soviet empire and tax-and-spend Democrats. The former is gone, and the latter is still with us, but many libertarians have come to realize that they are as far apart from their conservative "allies" on the big issues of the day as they are from their liberal adversaries.

There were shades of this GOP crackup throughout the conference. Friday morning, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who, along with Newt Gingrich, crafted the Contract with America, which enabled Republicans in 1994 to seize control of the House for the first time in 40 years, gave a speech that was a clarion call for liberty. He blamed the ensuing Republican sell-outs on the willingness of GOP politicians to put political gain (what’s in it for me now?) above public policy (what will advance freedom in our country?). He compared the private sector, which is based on freely chosen deal-making, with the public sector. "Divisional labor works when people mind their own business," he said. "Government is about minding other people’s business. … Governments exist to make you do what you would not do voluntarily."

That was a rousing talk. A little later, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney pilloried Hillary Clinton for complaining that America is an "on your own society" rather than "shared responsibility society." He chided her: "Out with Adam Smith, and in with Karl Marx." That was fine rhetoric, although he then offered one word that summarized his view of governing America: "Strength." Not freedom. And when an audience member asked him whether he, as president, would allow states to follow the will of their voters and approve medical marijuana, he gave an over-my-dead-body answer (to boisterous applause, by the way). "No," he said. "Marijuana is a gateway to drug use, a plague to our children and a plague to our country." So he’s for freedom and states’ rights, unless he doesn’t approve of what you or your state’s voters decide to do with that freedom!

That contrast was nothing compared with what attendees witnessed Saturday morning. Grover Norquist, a prominent conservative activist from Americans for Tax Reform, called on the reconstitution of Reagan’s "leave us alone" coalition. The members of that group — gun lovers, home-schoolers, small-business owners, taxpayer advocates — didn’t necessarily like each other, he said, but they united in their desire to pursue their lives without excessive meddling from the government. "We don’t have to agree on secondary and tertiary issues," he said. "Ours is a low-maintenance coalition that wants to be left alone in the zone that matters to them, and that’s what matters." By contrast, the Democratic coalition is what he calls the "takings coalition — the unions, trial lawyers, the dependency movement, coercive utopians and radical environmentalists" who are promoting "a list of rules slightly longer and less tedious than Leviticus." These groups can work together as long "as more money is coming into the center of the table." His solution: Starve the beast through tax cuts and expand the coalition of Americans whose primary goal is to be left alone.

That’s my thinking. But immediately after Norquist’s talk came Duncan Hunter, a San Diego congressman and GOP presidential candidate. While Norquist championed a coalition of people who want government to leave them alone, Hunter championed a government that was about bossing everybody around. "It is in the interests of the United States to expand freedom," he said. "If you don’t change the world, the world will change you." And, boy, did Hunter offer plans to change the world. He vowed to take on China and Iran, to continue what he viewed as a successful war in Iraq, to crack down on illegal immigration and to expand government spending on the military. He talked about "duty, honor, country" but not about liberty. The crowd — at least the conservative faction — roared its approval.

"That was the scariest s— I’ve heard in a long time," I whispered to libertarian writer Doug Bandow, who apparently agreed. Writing in his blog, Bandow contrasted Hunter with Norquist: "Very different was … Hunter, who wants to slap tariffs on Chinese imports, expand the military, close the border and go to war to do good around the world. His trade critique sounds like something out of communist central planning … . With his import limits he would follow the example of the disastrous Smoot-Hawley tariff, which wrecked international markets and helped bring on the Great Depression. Worse, though, he wants to use the U.S. military to ‘expand freedom around the world,’ when Washington’s principal responsibility is to defend America’s national security. Undertaking glorious international crusades with other people’s lives is Wilsonian liberalism, not responsible conservatism."

Hence the divide. We also saw it the night before when religious conservative Alan Keyes gave a dinner address. He was greeted by a standing ovation by conservatives as he entered the room, while a few of us in the libertarian faction rolled our eyes, grabbed our cigars and quietly headed to the bar.

Libertarian GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul actually won the conference straw poll with 32 percent of the vote, but his nearly one-third support conforms to my sense of the gathering’s two-to-one conservative vs. libertarian breakdown.

As I cleared my head on the gorgeous southward drive east of the Sierras along U.S. 395, I was left with only one conclusion: All the king’s horses and all the king’s men won’t put this Humpty Dumpty coalition together again.

Steven Greenhut (send him mail) is a senior editorial writer and columnist for the Orange County Register. He is the author of the book, Abuse of Power.