Two narratives, both wrong, have emerged from the latest round in the cage match otherwise known as the race for the Republican nomination. Influential voices on both sides predict ruin for one team of combatants and triumph for the other.
In truth, both teams are the worse off, because neither can win — not without becoming more libertarian in one way or another. While their titans clash, relatively unrepresented and un-personified libertarianism waits in the wings.
Both teams have a hard time taking this prospect seriously. Consider each in turn, however, and the likelihood grows clear.
In the first team’s narrative, Newt Gingrich, for good or for ill, is now the human flag that all true conservatives are obliged to rally around. It’s a scenario that dyed-in-the-wool conservatives have been accustomed to, and forced into, for a long time.
What strikes moderate, liberal, and even establishment conservative Republicans as a childish tantrum is better understood as the typical tragic courage of conservatives under siege, embodied in regionalist books like “I’ll Take My Stand” and in nationalist slogans like “My country, right or wrong.”
Lest you cocktail-swilling elites groan that the only tragedy is these people think themselves courageous, consider that Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker is on to something when he tweets that “Romney win may do more to crush, embarrass, and discredit the Tea Party wing of GOP than Dems ever could. Lines are clear now.”
So they are. The concentration of anti-establishment conservatives around Gingrich shows what many of them now plainly admit: the stakes are high, and they are willing to risk spectacular defeat. Opting instead for a slow, humiliating political death is no choice at all.
Alas, conservatives’ tragic courage romanticizes a defeat akin to death in order to quiet their deeper fear — that they’ll live to lose another day, pulled yet again by the liberalizing drift of things into a future where they and their progeny grow ever more accustomed and similar to what today seems an alien, even hostile, social and political world.
This, of course, is where Team Romney and their establishmentarian fellow-travelers come in. They’re not fantasizing about a final battle for mastery of the GOP. They may long to destroy the political careers of the counter-establishment’s leading men and ladies, it’s true. But when the smoke clears, it’s Lincoln’s Second Inaugural all over again: we must be friends, you ragtag rebels; come, reassume your proper relationship with the Union. The Republican Party — warts and all — is the only party in town. The alternative, they say, is just what the old South dreaded: the inexorably diminishing power of a permanent political minority.
This is a plausible enough response to the Team Gingrich narrative because it’s played out in reality so many times before. And some conservatives are just about ready — if not more than ready — to try it again. After all, Newt may be a romantic historian of American glory, but he’s no Davy Crockett or Robert E. Lee.
But that doesn’t mean Mitt Romney is Abraham Lincoln. The fact is, the leadership benches of both the GOP’s two contending factions are especially weak.
Republicans (like all Americans) must never forget that even many of the greatest political figures in Western history, like Lincoln, seemed profoundly feeble until their time of triumph. But the triumph, as Churchill as well as Lincoln can attest, often comes at a terrible price. The political longing for final victories is of a sort that ultimately can only be realized through war.
There isn’t going to be a real war within the GOP. There will only be factions led by people in power and by has-beens or wannabes out of power. Regardless of whether Team Romney or Gingrich gains the upper hand — and regardless of whether the Republican nominee defeats Obama in the general election — the GOP will most likely be defined for at least the next four years by a combination of a weak leadership and irreconcilable internal divisions.
Though a party can still govern under such conditions, as Bill Clinton’s second term revealed, it’s not great news for Team Romney or Team Gingrich. It is, however, great news for America’s libertarians. Their bench of leaders is even weaker than the mainstream GOP’s — but for them, that’s a paradoxical advantage.
Libertarians aren’t stuck with a pack of ambitious contenders. Ron Paul’s campaign is a farewell tour. Gary Johnson is far from locking up the libertarian base. And Rand Paul has cannily chosen to stay in his lane. While tea party conservatives struggle with the awkward imperatives imposed by a primary campaign, tea party libertarians have managed to avoid the discrediting defeat that Lizza describes. Even if Ron Paul is discredited, the ideas, commitments, and attitudes of today’s practical libertarians are set to survive and thrive.
Our practical libertarians don’t even have to deal with the painful leadership struggle playing out among conservatives at the level of theory. Professional libertarians might squabble over putting Rothbard above Hayek and so on, but these arguments often take place at a level of abstraction with only marginal relevance to America’s practical libertarians.
Mainstream Republicans will counter that any kind of libertarian today is in a marginal political position. But libertarians occupy that ground in a position of relative strength. Republicans immersed in internecine struggles may occupy the political center, but they do so in a position of relative weakness.
James Poulos is a columnist at The Daily Caller, a contributor at Ricochet, and a commentator in print, online, and on television and radio. Recently he has been the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. His website is jamespoulos.com and his Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.