Opinion

Ready for prime time? Rand Paul’s Convention speech an opening for liberty-minded Republicans

Photo of Matthew Hurtt
Matthew Hurtt
Contributor

The GOP recently released a list of its second round of speakers at the 2012 Convention in Tampa. Among them is Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, the son of retiring Congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul.

Senator Paul was swept into office in the tea party wave of 2010, along with other liberty-minded Republicans like Utah Senator Mike Lee and Michigan Congressman Justin Amash. But they aren’t your run-of-the-mill conservatives in the style of Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich.

Rand and his colleagues have a libertarian streak. They’re concerned with our expansionist foreign policy abroad and the erosion of our civil liberties at home. Their proposals would dramatically cut the federal budget, while most mainstream conservative initiatives merely trim around the edges of future spending.

They oppose domestic drone surveillance, intrusive pat-downs at the airport, indefinite detention of U.S. citizens, and government meddling with the Internet.

But Senator Paul and the handful of libertarian-leaning Republicans who went to Congress with him aren’t alone. According to the Cato Institute, which published a policy analysis titled “The Libertarian Roots of the Tea Party,” many of the grassroots activists behind the 2010 tea party wave agree with Paul & Co.’s ambitious goals to cut spending and rein in the federal government.

From the analysis:

Libertarians led the way for the tea party. Starting in early 2008 through early 2009, we find that libertarians were more than twice as “angry” with the Republican Party, more pessimistic about the economy and deficit since 2001, and more frustrated that people like them cannot affect government than were conservatives.

Libertarians, including young people who supported Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign, provided much of the early energy for the tea party and spread the word through social media.

Understanding the tea party’s strong libertarian roots helps explain how the tea party movement has become a functionally libertarian influence on the Republican Party. Most tea partiers have focused on fiscal, not social, issues — cutting spending, ending bailouts, reducing debt, and reforming taxes and entitlements — rather than discussing abortion or gay marriage. Even social conservatives and evangelicals within the tea party act like libertarians.

The tea party is upending the conventional wisdom that Republican candidates must placate socially conservative voters to win primaries. Increasingly, Republican candidates must win over tea party voters on libertarian economic issues.

To the extent the Republican Party becomes functionally libertarian, focusing on fiscal over social issues, the tea party deserves much credit — credit that political strategists, scholars, and journalists have yet to fully give.

If the Cato Institute’s premise is true, then Senator Paul’s libertarian message will be welcome at the Convention — not just among Paul-supporting (but Mitt Romney-bound) delegates like me, but to a much wider audience of grassroots activists who turn out in Republican primaries.

Senator Paul has a unique opportunity, not only to present a truly fiscally conservative message, but also to expand the ranks of libertarian-minded Republicans.