Several developments within the Republican Party were readily apparent during the presidential debate last Thursday evening. Predictably, the talk beforehand had centered around the lack of “big names” that would show up, which presumably was our media’s way of dutifully drawing the parameters of public discourse.
Obviously, the gatekeepers in the press view the majority of America’s voting public as incapable of coming to their own informed decisions, thereby (in their mind at least) leaving it incumbent upon them to tell them who is and is not “viable.” Any candidate who dares to stray from the tiny box of “acceptable debate” is instantly derided as a crank by opinion makers on both the left and right.
The degree to which the rhetoric of the Republican Party has shifted over the last four years was tangible and welcome. 60% of the candidates on the stage were willing to either call for the outright withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan or signal strong reservations about the war; this would have been unthinkable during the 2008 election cycle. Although not representative of Republican primary voters at large (though the numbers who are souring on Afghanistan has seen a significant uptick over the last year) this put on clear display the degree to which many in the GOP can no longer reconcile the notion of limited government with the expensive nation building operation in Afghanistan.
Spending billions of taxpayer dollars on a country with little appetite to develop civil institutions and leaders that we rarely seem on the same page with looks more and more like a waste of resources as the years drag on. With the recent death of bin Laden, now would be the ideal time for a conservative candidate to articulate the rationale behind a speedy exit from Afghanistan; if not now, after the death of al Qaeda’s leader and America’s most notorious menace, then when?
Nor could the candidates on stage be heard chiming in on Iraq (at least not in a positive manner), reflecting the sober view of many Republicans that, in hindsight, the war was in fact a blunder. This softening of the war drums within the GOP is an excellent sign, as their abandoning of a restrained foreign policy following 9/11 cost them the trust of a significant portion of the electorate. Success in 2010 came with focus on a conservative economic message, not the preaching of a Wilsonian foreign policy.
Another welcome aspect (which many establishment Republicans were no doubt grimacing about) was the libertarian arguments presented on the stage in South Carolina. Ron Paul and Gary Johnson’s presence were double breaths of fresh air for those in the Republican Party who had become disenchanted with the authoritarian rhetoric espoused during the Bush years. On this particular night, it was Rick Santorum carrying the banner of statism.
The former Pennsylvania senator’s words contrasted starkly with the liberty-friendly arguments made by Paul and Johnson. It was as if Santorum was unaware his version of big government conservatism had long since been rejected by the party. Too many Republicans have wised up to the disingenuous practice of intertwining strong family values (which are a wonderful thing) with the federal government (which is possibly the worst instrument on the face of the earth for promoting those family values) for Santorum’s arguments to carry much sway.
Having two candidates like Paul and Johnson making a case for drug legalization in this venue was an encouraging sight. The conservative/liberal paradigm many on the right have looked at this issue from is simply an inaccurate approach. A majority of conservatives are likely unaware that William F. Buckley, a conservative stalwart if there ever was one, was no fan of the federal war on drugs.
Even if it is not a winning issue in 2011, letting conservatives correctly view our senseless drug policy as merely an extension of overbearing, nanny state government would finally allow us to end what has become another endless “war” (poverty and terrorism among others) which government seems curiously unable to win. That these views are at least getting a hearing is a giant step in the right direction; supporters of each of these men should be glad Republican primary voters got a double dose of free market and individual liberty based perspectives.
The debate also crystallized just how challenging it will be to break through to a critical mass of Republicans. Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh could be heard praising Santorum the following day on his program, demonstrating just how determined many of the Bush-style conservatives are to preserve the status quo.
It seemed that the 2008 election provided many of the talk radio hosts, who had lost so much credibility over the preceding decade, an opportunity to make a clean break and embrace a genuinely conservative platform. But they are willing to double down and continue as apologists for the same tired talking points, ignoring everything from the monetary policy and civil liberties questions to failing to facilitate a reasonable debate over our overseas policies.
We need to acknowledge that many are simply using the Tea Party as a vehicle to get the same sort of Republicans who gave us Iraq, Medicare Part D, and back into power. But with more debates like the one in South Carolina, there is much hope for the future trajectory of the conservative movement. Presenting clear, concise arguments on how to truly restrain government will see to it that the needle is slowly moved in the right direction.