- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Three decades after libertarians and social conservatives teamed up to help elect Ronald Reagan president, those on both sides are wondering whether they still have enough in common to keep the marriage going.

Spurred by splits on marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage, the libertarian wing of the GOP is increasingly saying that the party needs to rethink long-held stances.

The debate will play out at this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, which is hosting a panel specifically to pose the question of whether the split can be patched over.

“There will be no marriage of libertarians and social conservatives without one side or the other seriously compromising its philosophy,” said H.W. Brands, an author and political historian at the University of Texas. “The Democrats don’t have to worry on this score. What they do have to worry about is a candidate who, without belonging to either camp, can speak a message that appeals to both. Think Reagan.”

Indeed, Ronald Reagan’s tenure was the last time there was some semblance of peace between the two sides of the debate. In the years since, without the Cold War to paper over the differences, the divisions are more evident.

While social conservatives applauded much of President George W. Bush’s tenure, libertarians balked at the rising debt and increasing government of Mr. Bush’s trademark “compassionate conservatism.”

By the 2012 Republican presidential primary, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who carried social conservatives’ banner, openly and bitterly sparred with libertarian icon Rep. Ron Paul over abortion and same-sex marriage.

The debate comes even as polls show Americans increasingly embracing same-sex marriage and legalization of marijuana.

But Al Cardenas, head of the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC, said the factions have little choice but to make peace.

“There is no road to a majority unless there is a strong alliance between libertarians and conservatives,” Mr. Cardenas said.

The Reagan coalition was generally seen as encompassing three strands of conservatives: the limited-government economic conservatives, the religious and social values conservatives, and the defense hawks who believed combatting communism was the overriding issue.

There’s little doubt that CPAC leans toward the libertarian side of those three. In last year’s straw poll, 77 percent of respondents identified limited-government conservatism as their driving philosophy, while 15 percent said it was promoting traditional values and just 8 percent said it was security.

Matthew Spalding, associate vice president and dean for Hillsdale College in Washington, said he believes that strains of the movement could find common ground again as long as they don’t think of themselves “as ideologies and they instead appeal to the kind of higher ground in their agreement.”

“The problem we have today is that these things get drawn towards politics and policy, and we end up having fights at that level,” Mr. Spalding said, adding that the party might need a Reagan-like figure to pull everyone under the same tent.

“The way Reagan did it, the way he caused that fusionism, was not talking about particular issues that libertarians and conservatives could agree upon. He talked about it by appealing to a higher authority. He is the modern conservative movement figure that defined conservatism as the heir and the defender of kind of American tradition,” he said, adding that includes the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Matt Welch, editor-in-chief of libertarian magazine Reason, said he believes the division isn’t as deep as it seems to some.

“I think the two sides are much closer than they have been in a long time just because of Obama, and Bush too in a sense,” he said. “The revulsion at big government that has been pretty apparent since before the 2008 election has thrown together people that otherwise might disagree on other stuff.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Paul’s son, Sen. Rand Paul, is trying to revive the marriage of libertarians and social conservatives, making the case that their interests are often intertwined.

“Libertarian doesn’t mean libertine,” Mr. Paul said in a recent speech. “I don’t see libertarianism as sort of ‘you can do whatever you want.’ There is a role for government. There is a role for family. There is a role for marriage. There is a role for the protection of life.”

Like his father, Mr. Paul has been at odds with some social conservatives over the role the federal government should play when it comes to marriage and marijuana.

He also has pushed conservatives to restore voting rights for some non-violent felons and to reform the mandatory sentencing laws for non-violent drug offenders, saying that as a Christian he believes in forgiveness.

More broadly, Mr. Paul is arguing that libertarians’ push for freedom and social conservatives’ push for traditional norms help balance once another out.

“While there is a role for government, there is also a role for those of you who are not in government — in fact it is as big or bigger,” he said. “You want to promote family, you need to talk about it in your community, with your kids. You want to promote marriage, with your kids and in your community. I can’t make kids get married.”

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