Over the weekend, NRO’s Ramesh Ponnuru drew attention to some remarks by Rand Paul on “libertarianism” and the future of the GOP. Paul said:
I’ve been talking to a lot of the national leaders in the Republican party… and there are certain parts of the country we’ve given up on, the whole West coast and New England, so what I keep telling them is maybe we need some libertarian-type Republicans who might be popular in those areas. Maybe a less aggressive, more socially tolerant but still fiscally conservative policy that may be more libertarian might do better in California, might do better in Oregon, Washington, ne. And I think if we had that it might be a great strategy. Our problem in the presidential election is we’ve given up 150 electoral votes before we get started.
Ponnuru has a number of points in response, some of which I agree with. He points out electoral evidence that social issues aren’t hurting the GOP in these areas as much as Paul indicates, and also reminds us that both parties, really, start the electoral race with large regions of the country out of reach; it’s not clear the GOP is at a disadvantage in this regard.
But Ponnuru begins his response by saying:
I wouldn’t have thought that Rand Paul was one of the those libertarians who saw his philosophy as a combination of social liberalism and fiscal conservatism, since he himself opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. Perhaps he’s saying that the Republicans need candidates who are more libertarian-type than he is?
That’s a fair question. Now here’s my question: does “more libertarian-type” and “socially tolerant” mean pro-abortion and pro-gay-marriage? Or was Paul calling for candidates with a different kind of attitude? Perhaps for Paul, language like “libertarian-type” and “socially tolerant” really just means candidates who are willing to deinstitutionalize the culture war.
For me, reading over what Paul said, it’s the phrase “less aggressive” that especially raises this question. Do pro-life, pro-traditional-marriage politicians usually use the phrase “less aggressive” to describe the pro-abortion and pro-gay-marriage positions?
I wouldn’t prefer to use the word “tolerant” to describe what I take Paul to be describing. But then, I also wouldn’t prefer to use the word “tolerant” to describe support for the right to kill babies.
Since some of you will be wondering, and since it may legitimately be relevant, it’s worth noting that the question of Paul’s own beliefs has itself been the subject of some controversy. In his last election, his opponent attacked him with claims he’s a phony Christian. I don’t think it’s usually worthwhile to examine the sincerity of a politician’s beliefs; for if we wish politicians not to seek windows into our souls, in Elizabeth’s classic formulation, we might start by not seeking windows into theirs. (Of all men’s souls to seek a window into, I would have expected the politician would not be the spiritual tourist’s first choice.)
But that’s exactly the reason I think this datum may be an additional reason to interpret Paul’s remarks in the way I’m suggesting. After his unpleasant experience, perhaps Paul views “libertarian-type” and “tolerant” attitudes as the only way to get this kind of ridiculous thing out of our electoral politics. I don’t think so, but he may think so.