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Collision course

Politics | The always uneasy Reagan coalition of libertarian and social conservatives is increasingly under strain. Government growth under President Bush and the rise of the social-conservative agenda, some argue, may push the relationship to the breaking point

Issue: "Abortion: Delta force," Jan. 22, 2005

When George W. Bush utters the words "So help me God" shortly after noon on Jan. 20, Washington will briefly become Party Capital, USA. From fireworks to disco balls, fancy soirees to down-home barbecues, Republicans all over town will shed their buttoned-down image to fete four more years of power.

In the midst of the celebrations, however, at least some Republicans will be doing a bit of soul-searching. With the media's sudden discovery of "values voters," another key component of the GOP coalition feels largely overlooked. Libertarian-leaning Republicans-the ones who put small government ahead of godly government-are beginning to wonder if they have a future in the party they have long considered their own.

"I think the problem they have at the moment is that they don't have a figure like Reagan to get behind," says Doug Bandow, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a leading libertarian think tank. "If you're libertarian-minded, Bush has been a tremendous disappointment. [Libertarians] see social issues pushed to the forefront, and at the same time they see massive spending increases and government growth, and they're pretty dissatisfied."

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Winning back libertarian loyalties while satisfying his social-conservative base could prove to be one of the trickiest political maneuvers of Mr. Bush's second term. And how well he executes that maneuver just might decide whether the Republican Revolution marches on after its general retires in 2008.

It was Ronald Reagan who first forged the alliance that has dominated American politics for a generation. By talking eloquently about social issues like abortion and school prayer, he energized evangelicals in the South and recruited Roman Catholics in the Rust Belt cities of the Midwest.

Yet despite his innovative religious rhetoric, Mr. Reagan remained fiercely committed to the libertarian goal of shrinking the size and scope of the federal government. His unsuccessful battle to eliminate the Department of Education, for instance, helped to keep libertarians firmly in the Republican fold even as the party pursued its new social policies.

A quarter-century later, libertarians complain that they haven't seen that sort of government-shrinking zeal from Mr. Bush. Critics point out that the Bush tax cuts, for example, have been more than offset by massive increases in government spending, a surge in federal hiring, and a blizzard of new regulations.

Even some of the president's staunchest supporters acknowledge that his second term must be marked by greater fiscal restraint. In Congress, a vocal minority of GOP lawmakers has publicly promised to defy White House requests for additional spending and new federal programs. The administration also got an economic wake-up call on Jan. 4, when a new report by the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal found that for the first time ever, the United States has dropped out of the top 10 freest economies in the world. According to the report, high taxes and uncontrolled spending have dragged the United States down to 12th place, behind countries like the U.K. and Denmark that once flirted with socialism.

"The United States is resting on its laurels while innovative countries around the world are changing their approaches and reducing their roadblocks," says Marc Miles, one of the editors of the Heritage report. "The U.S. is eating the dust of countries that have thrown off the 20th-century shackles of big government spending and massive federal programs."

But just when libertarians perceive the most pressing need for fundamental economic reforms, they see their agenda being hijacked by evangelicals' calls for greater emphasis on social issues. "I hear a lot of resentment and almost fear of the religious right," Mr. Bandow says. "Values voters sometimes seem to speak a different language. If you're an economic conservative and you're talking to people you have trouble understanding, it's a tough coalition to hold."

Some libertarians are trying to bridge the gap by finding common philosophical ground-not to mention a common language-for dealing with social issues (see interview, p. 34). They point out that despite their reputation for being "fiscally tight and morally loose," many libertarians have very traditional views on issues such as abortion.

"Libertarians don't believe in personal or government violence," says Ron Paul, a former Libertarian Party presidential candidate who is now a GOP congressman from Texas. "I make the argument that killing a live human fetus is an act of aggression."

Such views have earned Mr. Paul high ratings from groups like the Christian Coalition, yet the congressman is suspicious of federal attempts to enforce moral behavior. He has angered many Christian conservatives by declining to support federal bans on both cloning and gay marriage, arguing that those issues are not the prerogative of the federal government. "Libertarians get nervous when conservatives want to use the power of the state to impose their will, rather than getting the state out of the way," he explains. "If you're a conservative constitutionalist, you don't want to nationalize these issues."

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