Kentucky’s Sen. Rand Paul is expected to announce his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination today, and although this is far too early to be talking about the ’16 election it’s as good a time as any to ponder the state of the conservative coalition.
Anyone old enough to have lived through the glory days of President Ronald Reagan will recall how he somehow managed to construct a winning “three-legged stool” from the oft-warring factions of economic libertarians, social traditionalists, and national security hawks. With Paul currently being the most prominent standard-bearer of economic libertarianism, much of the national press coverage of his candidacy has gleefully concerned itself with how he might fare with the Republican primary voters from the other two legs of the stool, and whether anyone might be able to bring that coalition together again. So far the press seems doubtful about Paul’s chances, and we generally agree with that assessment, but we remain hopeful that someone can pull off the trick.
Social conservatives such as possible presidential contender Mike Huckabee, the Baptist preacher and former governor of Arkansas, tend to regard libertarians as libertines. Already the press is anticipating Paul having trouble in South Carolina and other early southern primary states, despite Paul’s recent carefully calculated courtship of the crucial religious voters in those states, but the press isn’t much aware of how social conservatives are thinking these days. The religious right is now on the defensive, less concerned with banning abortion or preventing same-sex marriages than the increasingly real possibility of being forced to pay for abortifacients or bake cakes or pizza pies for homosexual wedding ceremonies, and they will find the libertarians invaluable allies in those fights. Besides, most of the religious right is quite comfortable with free market capitalism, unless they’re working in industries that require protectionism or some other government protection, and Paul, like his father, the obstetrician and libertarian hero and former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, is anti-abortion, staking out a not uncommon libertarian position that the unborn are also due liberty.
Those rooting against the conservative coalition seem more hopeful that foreign policy will prove the dividing issue, but this seems doubtful. Only the most doctrinaire sorts of libertarians are strict isolationists such as Paul’s father, with most understanding that the national defense is crucial to the preservation to liberty, and even the younger Paul has lately been espousing a more robust foreign policy by advocating for increased military spending and signing on to that controversial letter opposing the proposed deal with Iran regarding its nuclear weapons program. It remains to be seen if Paul can persuade the defense hawks that his recent conversion is sincere, the past six years have so thoroughly discredited isolationism that the Republican party will almost certainly be united behind a more pragmatic philosophy.
Paul doesn’t strike us as the one who will ultimately reunite that conservative coalition, but not for the reasons that press cites. We expect the Republicans will not only be looking for Reagan’s three-legged conservatism but also experience and results, which a one-term Senator cannot claim, and even Paul’s impeccable anti-establishment credentials won’t help with the party’s anti-Washington mood. Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker has a record of withstanding the most brutal left-wing attacks in taking on the public and private sector unions to enact capitalist reforms, he’s managed to avoid giving offense to either the religious or secular populations of his state, his utter lack of foreign policy experience allows him to articulate whatever defense policies he chooses, and anyone with a similar resume should be able to re-build that three-legged stool. Whatever qualms any of the three parts of the stool might have about the others, they’ll likely find the Democratic alternative far worse.
— Bud Norman