Amid Struggle For 'Soul' Of GOP, Libertarians Take Limelight
"There is no question that there is a civil war that is waging within the party."
That Republican conflict, political science professor David Cohen adds, isn't between just two sides, but among a number of factions, including libertarians.
One of the most public battles has involved national security and civil liberties. Leaks about the National Security Agency's surveillance programs raised alarms for libertarians about the government's reach.
On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that the NSA "has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008." The article and follow-up reports fuel the ongoing civil liberties debate. These leaks have helped push libertarian ideology into the limelight.
"I think it's really brought home many of the things that we've been talking about," says libertarian Rep. Justin Amash of Grand Rapids, Mich. "There's a real concern about a surveillance state that's been growing. There's concern that government is collecting much more information than it actually needs to prosecute terrorism."
Certainly, the government should be trying to track down terrorists, Amash tells NPR's Don Gonyea.
"I would say libertarian Republicans believe that national defense is the No. 1 priority of the federal government under the Constitution," Amash says. "But whatever we do has to comport with the Constitution. So we can't violate individual liberty; we can't violate privacy and property rights in the pursuit of terrorism."
At a GOP gathering last month, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called libertarian ideas about national security "dangerous."
In a rebuttal, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — seen as stepping into his father's shoes as the new face of libertarianism — said he was the one "trying to grow the party by talking about libertarian ideas and privacy and the Internet, and attacking me isn't helping the party."
Cohen, a professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, says libertarianism is becoming appealing to more Republicans because of its popularity with a younger generation of voters.
"That is a demographic that they desperately need to do better with," he says. "That socially liberal, economically conservative, non-interventionist policy stance popular among libertarians is very appealing to younger, college-age people. ... Some of these people are disaffected Obama voters who have been turned off by the Obama administration's national security policies and foreign policies and interventionism."
In its summer meeting, the Republican National Committee discussed — if circuitously — how it plans to broaden its base in the years to come. Amid calls for strengthening the party, Chairman Reince Priebus encouraged debate.
"We should be roiling with new ideas, new leaders, and yes, some internal debates. Thank goodness we are," he said. "And I say bring on the conversations because they're a sign that this Republican Party is preparing itself to lead this country."
Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary for George W. Bush, says whenever a party isn't in the White House, "you're going to see a fight for the soul of that party until a nominee emerges."
He points to division within the Democratic Party in 2007 and 2008, when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama went head-to-head for their party's support.
"But winning the White House takes care of a lot of that," Fleischer says. "It's Republicans' turn now to be out of the White House and fight for who the nominee is that will represent the party."
DON GONYEA, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea.
Coming up, your childhood dream of owning your very own jet pack may be about to come true.
But first, Republican leaders gathered in Boston for their summer meeting this week. There was a lot to talk about from immigration and the economy to privacy and the surveillance policies of the National Security Agency. But for the GOP to shape the agenda on these issues, it needs to win national elections. And that's something it hasn't been able to do in almost a decade now.
Much of the problem is changing demographics. Republican voters are overwhelmingly white as the country becomes ever more diverse. Here's the dilemma.
ARI FLEISCHER: As much as I love - and I do love to watch Fox News - we cannot win only on the basis of appealing to Fox News voters.
GONYEA: That's former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. He knows a thing or two about winning elections with his former boss President George W. Bush. We'll hear more from him a bit later.
One faction within the party thinks it has some answers that will help expand the GOP base: the libertarians. That's our cover story today: In a divided Republican Party, is this the libertarians' moment?
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GONYEA: One of those libertarians is 33-year-old Republican Congressman Justin Amash.
REPRESENTATIVE JUSTIN AMASH: Whether Republicans choose to or not, the party is going to change. And libertarian Republicans are going to be a large part of the party.
GONYEA: The Republican Party held onto control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012, but Mitt Romney was routed by President Obama and the Senate stayed firmly in Democratic hands. Worried that the GOP had lost touch with the changing demographics of the electorate, the Republican Party did some soul-searching.
It created something called the Growth and Opportunity Project, which came back with a 100-page report about what needs to change. But the prescription is not new policies, but messaging and how to reach out to and talk to potential voters. Ari Fleischer was on the committee that wrote the report.
FLEISCHER: Here's the challenge for Republicans. Republicans have to realize that we're no longer winning states that we used to win not very far long ago. And those states include battlegrounds - Michigan, Pennsylvania - states that will never win the presidency again if we write off those states. Republicans have to maintain a conservative ideology and extend it graciously and welcomingly across the middle of the country as well. That's how you form a growing coalition. That's how you don't become a permanent minority party that's blocked and locked out of the White House.
We are not going to win a majority of minority voters, but we can make inroads. And those inroads are vital to being a growing successful party.
GONYEA: But making that happen has not been a particularly smooth process.
FLEISCHER: Anytime a party is out of the White House, you're going to see a fight for the soul of that party until a nominee emerges. I think that was true with the Democrats. If you remember in 2007 and 2008, you had a little bit of a fight between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The party couldn't have been more split. It's Republicans' turn now to be out of the White House and fight for who the nominee is that will represent the party.
GONYEA: The current tension within the GOP took a public and nasty turn recently when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had strong criticism of libertarians, questioning their views on national security. Christie spoke at the Aspen Institute.
GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: This strain of libertarianism that's going through both parties right now and making big headlines, I think, is a very dangerous thought.
GONYEA: Hearing that, Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky, the libertarians' highest profile leader, fired back during an appearance on Fox News.
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SENATOR RAND PAUL: He's making a big mistake picking a fight with other Republicans because the Republican Party's shrinking in New England and in the northeast part of our country. I'm the one trying to grow the party by talking about libertarian ideas of privacy in the Internet. And attacking me isn't helping the party. He's hurting the party.
GONYEA: The dispute raises questions about whether the GOP is settling into protracted factional warfare.
Reince Priebus is the chairman of the Republican National Committee. Speaking in Boston this week, he says it's all part of a healthy process.
REINCE PRIEBUS: We should be roiling with new ideas, new leaders and, yes, some internal debates. Thank goodness we are. And I say bring on the conversations because they're a sign that this Republican Party is preparing itself to lead this country. Are you with me?
GONYEA: Congressman Justin Amash of Grand Rapids, Michigan, is part of that debate.
AMASH: Members of Congress who are on the more libertarian side - and it's a pretty large group now - are tired of the wars that go on overseas, think that we shouldn't be in Afghanistan, want us to bring our troops home from across the globe. And young people really represent that strain of thought. They've seen these wars go on for years with no end. And they'd like to see some peace. They'd like to see us return to some normalcy.
GONYEA: There's been a lot of discussion about the rise of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party. What makes you a libertarian?
AMASH: Well, it's a belief in following the Constitution in limited government, economic freedom and individual liberty. Those are things that Republicans, for many years, would've said they believed in. And, in fact, many Republicans, even those who don't necessarily show it in their votes, will still say they believe in those things.
Unfortunately, those of us who have been more consistent in following that line of thinking have had to come up with another term or follow another term to show that we're distinct from those who have been doing the wrong thing. And that's been the term libertarianism.
GONYEA: The leaks by Edward Snowden and the revelations about the NSA data collection involving email traffic and other communications, has that issue being so in the news the way it has been, provided libertarians with a big real-life example to hang your arguments on?
AMASH: Yes. I think it's really brought home many of the things that we've been talking about. There's a real concern about surveillance state that's been growing. There's a concern that government is collecting much more information than it actually needs to prosecute terrorism. Of course, we want the government to go after terrorists, but whatever we do has to comport with the Constitution. So we can't violate individual liberty. We can't violate privacy and property rights in the pursuit of terrorism.
GONYEA: The libertarian caucus is certainly growing, but there are other factions within the Republican Party that are larger than yours - evangelicals for one. And we do see a lot of conflict, especially between the libertarians and the evangelicals. Is that a problem for the party?
AMASH: I don't think so. The Republican Party's going to be a coalition of people. We're not going to agree on everything. But at the end of the day, look, I live in a district that is socially conservative. I'm personally very socially conservative. But the fact that I don't think the federal government should be involved in determining what a marriage is, is not antisocially conservative. It's both libertarian and socially conservative, because social conservatives also believe the government shouldn't be entangled in these things. So I think there's a lot of common ground, and we have to work together.
GONYEA: You say there's always been that coalition. And certainly for decades, that coalition held together, and it was a winning formula for Republicans. But with President Obama's last two victories - both easy victories - that coalition seemed very afraid.
AMASH: Yeah. It's gotten weaker because there's been not tremendous acceptance initially by more establishment Republicans of the libertarian part of the party. And I think more and more are starting to understand that you need people like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz and Justin Amash to be a part of this party if you want it to grow. And that we're all going to need to work together.
GONYEA: There is a great deal at stake for the GOP. Watching all of this very closely is David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron in Ohio.
DAVID COHEN: Republicans are without a doubt looking for a new formula for 2016. Libertarianism is something that a lot of Republicans are turning to, especially because it is popular with the younger crowd. And that is a demographic that they desperately need to do better with. That socially liberal, economically conservative, non-interventionist policy stance popular among libertarians is very appealing to younger college-age people, you know? And some of these people are disaffected Obama voters who have been turned off by the Obama administration's national security policies and foreign policies and interventionism.
GONYEA: The last two presidential elections featured a very prominent libertarian candidate on the Republican side, Congressman Ron Paul, since retired from Congress. He didn't do very well. What does that tell us?
COHEN: Well, it tells us that libertarianism has not become part of the mainstream of the Republican Party yet and that his timing wasn't that great. But certainly, it looks like his son is ready to capitalize on his father's popularity.
GONYEA: Of course, that's Rand Paul, the senator from Kentucky.
COHEN: Yes. And he's very much making a name for himself. He won a lot of fans over with his filibuster earlier in the year over the Obama administration's drone policy and filibustering Obama's CIA choice. And that was the case of not only libertarians and many Republicans appreciating what he did, but also some liberals as well.
GONYEA: He's got a bigger megaphone because he's a U.S. senator, not a member of the House, so that helps. But he also benefits from his father's history, right?
COHEN: He absolutely does. I mean, he's already got the name recognition built in. Many view him as - at least in the Republican Party - as less radical than his father. Of course, he did get into a big dispute earlier with Governor Chris Christie, which, I think, really highlights that there is a split in the Republican Party, especially on foreign policy and national security issues.
GONYEA: Is that one of those moments - the Rand Paul-Chris Christie dustup - that is maybe good for libertarians but bad for the party?
COHEN: It's unclear whether it's bad for the party or not. Clearly, there's a real split in the Republican Party. There's a lot of fatigue among Republicans after two major wars - Iraq and Afghanistan - winding down. Some Republicans view in hindsight those wars as being a mistake. And there really is a noninterventionist to an isolationist bent among some of these libertarians.
And within the Republican Party, you still have a number of people who believe in an interventionist foreign policy, but that battle's going to continue to play out over the next couple of years.
GONYEA: The Republican Party has always had its factions, but for the longest time, they formed a very strong coalition. But these days, they seem to be fighting with one another more than they are working together to form some sort of a solid, three-legged stool.
COHEN: There is no question that there is a civil war that is waging within the party. And let's not forget about the Tea Party advocates as well. And there's a lot of common ground among these various wings, but there's also some significant areas of disagreement, especially on social issues when we're talking about libertarians and social or religious conservatives. Libertarians are very much more in line with progressives and liberals on those social issues.
There are a lot of social conservatives that have a real problem with libertarian stances on social issues such as same-sex marriage, LGBT issues, immigration, et cetera. And those are going to be some of the more significant fights that you're going to see in the upcoming months.
GONYEA: Professor Cohen says fights between Republicans on specific issues will likely continue over the coming months and years. And while this is a new moment of prominence for the libertarian point of view within the GOP, it remains to be seen if it is just a moment or something more lasting. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.