December 4, 2006

Bridging A Big Ideological Gap

Brink Lindsey has written a piece that has lots of thinkers in the political-science arena abuzz: can liberals and libertarians form a viable coalition in the late 2000's, the same way that conservatives once allied with libertarians way back in the Reagan Era?

At Volokh, Ilya Somin boils the way to make this happen down to its essence: "...liberals opposing the many big government programs that redistribute to the rich and middle class from the poor, libertarians accepting redistribution that benefits the genuinely destitute, and both sides placing greater emphasis on those personal liberties issues on which they already agree." In other words, they must find a way to compromise on reforming many economic restribution mechanisms currently in place, such as income tax deductions for mortgages, social security, and safety-net programs. Such efforts would meet with some conservative support, too, as it would no doubt end up including creating more disincentives to abuse welfare programs like TANF and unemployment insurance.

I have a hard time seeing the hard core of the liberal intelligentsia and the old-guard Democratic political leadership, particularly those whose electoral bases come from poverty-stricken inner cities, buying in to such a coalition. Similarly, there are a lot of appallingly fanatical Ayn Rand acolytes populating the libertarian community (if there actually is such a thing). But compromises and coalitions are never formed by ideological purists. "Blue dog" Democrats, particularly the freshman class of 2006 and the DLC crowd, may find an ability to reach out to the libertarian-minded and make Clintonesque appeals to reform welfare and make government less dangerous to civil liberties by making there by less government in the first place.

Alternatively, the Republicans could follow the suggestion of Dick Armey and others of his ilk, and find a way to draw back the libertarian voters that made up the great coalitions that elected Reagan and Bush the Elder. George W. Bush and his minions have chosen to eschew the path of limited, smaller government and fiscal responsibility, but that does not mean that the Republicans' underlying free-market ideology has lost its appeal to libertarians.

What's particularly interesting is that this is the group that seems to be up for grabs, and both sides of the political fence seem to think that libertarian voters, not "values voters" who populate the megachurches, are the critical swing group. When "churchy" voters were seen as the key to the ruling party maintaining power, they pretty much called the shots in terms of policy. One wonders -- and this one hopes -- whether a similar dynamic can happen if there has been a realignment leaving the libertarian-minded in the critical balance.

Will we become kingmakers rather than spoilers? The answer is "yes," if someone is smart enough to reach out to us in a way that is not fundamentally abhorrent to their base. It seems to me that Republicans are better-positioned to do that than Democrats, still, but it will take some rebuilding of trust after this Administration has gone away. Either John McCain or Rudy Giuliani could do that, and maybe Newt Gingrich or Tommy Thompson -- but Sam Brownback, Mitt Romney, or Condi Rice (because of her close association with Bush) cannot. For the Democrats, I can imagine Evan Bayh or maybe Bill Richardson pulling this off, but not Barack Obama, Hilary Rodham Clinton, John Edwards, Wesley Clark, or Tom Vilsack making a convincing appeal to libertarian voters.

Point is, it's a group that's up for grabs, and one that is amorphously large in nature, large enough to make a big difference. The right person, with the right kind of appeal, could grab that ring and take it straight to the top. Which, of course, is what politics is all about.

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