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."
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."
Mr. Paul believes the solution is to strip federal courts of jurisdiction over controversial social issues, then allow states to set their own limits on behavior. But conservatives say that's too little, too late. When it comes to gay marriage, for instance, "The constitutional problem created by almost a decade of activist lawsuits to destroy our marriage laws demands a constitutional fix," according to Matt Daniels, president of the Alliance for Marriage.
Indeed, after enduring decades of federal policies and judicial activism that chipped away at traditional moral values, many social conservatives plainly view a second Bush term as their opportunity to strike back by implementing laws and regulations that will put liberals and secularists on the defensive for years to come. In the past few weeks, for instance, conservative groups have weighed in on a host of issues:
• The Family Research Council is pushing the Senate to increase regulation on broadcasters with tough new federal decency laws;
• Concerned Women for America has called on Congress to ban the abortion drug RU-486;
• The Christian Coalition is promoting a law requiring abortionists to offer anesthesia for fetuses more than 20 weeks old.
Though many evangelicals view such actions as long overdue, even the more socially conservative libertarians worry that pressing a kind of morality offensive will inflict long-term damage on the Republican coalition. Already disheartened by the president's backsliding on economic issues, libertarians could defect from the party altogether if they sense Big Government extending its reach from markets into morality.
"True conservatives and libertarians are going to go to other parties or stay at home," Mr. Paul predicts.
Despite Mr. Bush's bigger-than-expected margin last November, a mass exodus by disaffected libertarians would likely doom GOP hopes for holding the White House in 2008. Evangelicals may have strengthened their hold on the Southeast and made gains in the Midwest, but libertarians still seem to be the backbone of the Republican Party in much of the West, thanks to the region's frontier mentality and its tradition of rugged individualism.
Without winning back a single state east of the Mississippi, Democrats in 2008 could triumph by picking off two or three Western states that have trended increasingly Democratic of late. Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico, for instance, have 29 electoral votes among them, and Mr. Kerry needed only 18 to change the outcome of the election.
Dispirited Democrats are already eyeing those Western states, and a handful of others, as the cure for their Electoral College woes. A Dec. 9 memo from the New Democrat Network put it like this:
"Bush's politics has been less transformative in the more libertarian Mountain West [than in the Southeast], where even under Bush we've seen Democrats score significant wins in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, and Wyoming, and hold strong along the West Coast. In 2004, Bush saw his winning margin decrease in 10 states that he also won in 2000-eight of them were the Western states Montana, Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, South Dakota, Nevada, North Dakota and Wyoming."
Of course, it's far from certain that the Democratic primary process could ever produce the kind of fiscally conservative nominee who would appeal to libertarian voters. But even without actually crossing party lines, those voters could make the difference in several Western states by simply staying home four years from now.
To keep libertarians involved in the Republican coalition, experts say it's important for social conservatives to sell the other wing of the party on the importance of moral issues, rather than merely running roughshod over their fears of Big Government.
Also, social conservatives can use their formidable grassroots network to push proposals dear to the hearts of economic conservatives, flexing its political muscle on behalf of Social Security privatization, for instance, in exchange for support from libertarians on the federalization of marriage laws.
"A major victory like Social Security would help economic conservatives say, 'Great, we got something out of this partnership, too'" notes Mr. Bandow, "especially if they perceived that social conservatives were helpful in the fight."