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Can the 'Moss Covered' GOP Be Pruned, Or Will the Old Guard Strike Back?
Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul (AP images)

Can the 'Moss Covered' GOP Be Pruned, Or Will the Old Guard Strike Back?

"The Rand Pauls and the Ted Cruzs have to perform a neat trick to succeed."

At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) earlier this month, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul attacked the Republican party for having grown "stale and moss covered."

Now, many observers are hoping that Paul and his compatriots, such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas or Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, will be able to prune that moss from the GOP. Experts wonder if the new guard will be able to do what it takes, as a push to seriously reform the GOP will almost certainly involve the shooting of more than a few of the party's sacred cows.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 7, 2013, as he leaves a GOP policy meeting. McCain was one of a small group of Republican senators who had dinner with President Barack Obama Wednesday night to address political gridlock.
Credit: AP

The reaction to Paul's filibuster to stall a vote to confirm John Brennan as CIA director foreshadowed this problem. Almost immediately after the event, many members of the neoconservative foreign policy establishment blasted Paul as everything from a "wacko bird" to leader of the "Code Pink Faction" of the GOP. This response makes eminent sense to University of Virginia Professor and political prognosticator Larry Sabato, who says figures like Paul and Cruz, who speak for a more libertarian message, will necessarily have to apply that message to issues that have longstanding purchase in Republican circles.

"The old bulls can still gore an opponent, and should never be written off until they are off the stage," Sabato told TheBlaze. "But you always look to the new energy in any party--the fresh leaders who create buzz and fire up the base. The Rand Pauls and the Ted Cruzs have to perform a neat trick to succeed, though. They have to mainstream themselves  to a reasonable degree without losing the fervor of their followers. They may also have to apply their libertarian approach to places where parts of the GOP base won't want it to go--social issues and defense, for example."

Paul and Cruz especially stand as good case studies for this issue, seeing as both men have been able to field support from both traditional conservatives and committed libertarians pretty much since their Senate runs. In fact, Paul, Cruz and Utah Sen. Mike Lee are the only three sitting members of the U.S. Senate to have been endorsed by former Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) in their run for Senate.

Unlike Lee, however, Paul and Cruz simultaneously fielded an endorsement from Sarah Palin. This puts them in the unique position

Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin (Photo Credit: AP)

of having gotten one of the premiere spokespeople for traditional conservatives to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with arguably the premiere spokesperson for libertarian transformation of the GOP.

On the one hand, this could foreshadow great success for Paul and Cruz as would-be reformers of the GOP. On the other, it is a coalition that may prove increasingly difficult to manage, given the differences between the problems that Palin supporters have with the GOP, versus the problems that libertarians have with the GOP. Noted statistician and New York Times blogger Nate Silver notes the conflict between the two in the context of a potential Presidential run for Paul:

The next constituency consists of Tea Party conservatives — a group that is much talked about, but hard to define. There are some significant demographic and attitudinal overlaps between the Tea Party and the religious right: in fact, one reason the religious right may have become less influential in the Republican Party is because some of those voters have been captured by the Tea Party movement instead. At the same time, the Tea Party has placed much more emphasis on economic policy than on social issues.[...]

Next are libertarian conservatives — the group that Mr. Paul may be most identified with. It has become fashionable to apply the term “libertarian” to almost any group that takes a more conservative attitude toward fiscal policy than toward social policy and generally takes a non-interventionist view of foreign policy. In practice, there aren’t all that many voters (and there are even fewer politicians) who take truly liberal stances toward social policy while at the same time holding strongly conservative positions on economics — and, in fact, Mr. Paul holds quite conservative stances on some social issues, like abortion. But there are a substantial number of voters who take very conservative stances on economic policy while holding moderate ones on social policy; these voters tend to identify as Republicans. There are also voters who hold very liberal views on cultural issues but who have centrist positions on economic policy. These voters may have once have identified as “Rockefeller Republicans, but are now more likely to align themselves with independents or Democrats and are unlikely to vote in large numbers in the Republican primaries.

At first blush, Silver's analysis seems to offer a very straightforward way forward for the new guard -- simply push the populist Tea Party message that both Paul and Palin have in common, while avoiding the issues that draw the smaller libertarian crowd while alienating more traditional conservatives.

This strategy has been something of a success for a figure like Marco Rubio, but for figures like Cruz and especially Paul, who has made advocacy for issues important to young people a centerpiece of his appeal for reform, and whose filibuster has made him the face of the new guard, it is arguably off the table. Why? Because if the new guard is going to stake its appeal on pushing a message more appealing to groups traditionally underserved by the Republican party, such as young people, then they face a real Catch-22 on social issues.

As we've noted at TheBlaze before, young people will not vote for socially conservative candidates, with even young conservatives tending to be libertarian. This is especially in evidence from the most recent Washington Times/ABC News poll on gay marriage, which notes:

Among young adults age 18 to 29, support for gay marriage is overwhelming, hitting a record high of 81 percent  in the new poll. Support has also been increasing among older adults, but those aged 65 years old and up remain opposed, on balance: 44 percent say same-sex marriage should be legal; 50 percent say illegal.

A same-sex marriage supporter waves a rainbow flag in front of the US Supreme Court on March 26, 2013 in Washington, DC, as the Court takes up the issue of gay marriage. (Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images) 

Moreover, if Rand Paul were to be the standard-bearer of the new guard in 2016, he faces another set of pressures. As Politico points out, one of Paul's strengths is the youth movement he inherits from his father:

Paul starts with a built-in base of libertarians that comprises at least 10 percent of the GOP electorate, and his boosters have made tremendous inroads in state parties around the country.

They may be a minority, but they are a devoted one. Paul supporters will drive farther and work harder than any other 2016 contender’s core backers. They also tend to be younger and engaged on social media and the blogosphere in ways that people who support someone of the older generation like, say, Jeb Bush are not.

His challenge is to cultivate those loyal to his father while at the same time broadening his appeal beyond libertarians. Inside the so-called liberty movement, there’s some frustration with the younger Paul for endorsing Mitt Romney last year during the Texas Republican convention — which critics believe cost the elder Paul delegates. Some also worry about nepotism in a movement that prizes merit.

So why is this a problem? Because supporters of the elder Paul are at least as focused on slashing the defense budget and decreasing America's power abroad as they are on conventional deficit cutting. Libertarian pundit Marianne Copenhaver, aka Libertarian Girl,  summed up this perspective when she told TheBlaze in an email:

In order for me to vote Republican I would have to see several actions taken:

A strict adherence to the constitution.

An end to the growth of government.

Passionate and unrelenting actions to reduce the overall size of the federal government and the regulatory complex.

Strict adherence to a non-interventionist foreign policy.

Reform of the tax code and labor laws.

An end to foreign aid.

The preservation of individual liberty in spite of foreign enemy scare tactics and legislation that panders to emotion.

Yet as we've also reported, some of these positions are less-than-popular and could make Paul's life very difficult in a GOP primary.

So by deciding to try to kill the old GOP with libertarianism, as Paul did by choosing to filibuster on an issue of civil liberties, and Cruz did by embracing that issue, the new guard may have forced themselves to take a lot of political risks.

Republican political strategist Liz Mair explained the problem to TheBlaze in an email.

"As Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are both finding out already, advocating stances more associated with libertarianism than traditional three-legged stool conservatism can easily put you at odds with some big names in the GOP and some traditional conservative/Republican constituencies," Mair wrote. "Can those types of people coexist in a coalition with more socially or culturally conservative folks, hardcore economic conservatives, and even some foreign policy conservatives on either the realist or the isolationist ends of the spectrum? And if so, can such a coalition form a sufficient base from which to win a national race? Quite possibly. The challenge is that that's rather untested, whereas the three-legged stool model is tried and tested and everyone know who belongs in it and what it can do-- even if in the current political situation, there are some obvious limits to its appeal in a national race, given what the electorate could look like in 2016."

Some data suggest that there is reason for hope that those risks could be worth it. To begin with, while Ron Paulite skepticism of America's motives has not gained any traction with conservatives, the general idea of a more restrained foreign policy is becoming more in vogue with the wider GOP. Half of participants in this year's CPAC straw poll said they thought America should take a humbler approach to foreign policy and leave America's allies to fend for themselves to a greater degree, compared with 34 percent who disagreed and 16 percent who weren't sure. The same poll found 86 percent disapproved of using drones to kill American citizens in any context, and 70 percent disapproved of even spying on Americans with drones.

That's a seismic shift away from the confident adventurism and skepticism of civil liberties present in the Bush administration, and it may signal that the GOP base is now war weary.

Social issues are trickier, but even there, the new guard may be able to endorse libertarian principles without losing the wider GOP's interest. There's also no necessity that Paul and Cruz take up social issues themselves, given that more establishmentarian figures who still have libertarian sympathies have been pushing it for them.

For instance, last week, Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) endorsed gay marriage, and while the move prompted outrage from socially conservative circles, the wider Tea Party community remained silent. The Republican National Committee (RNC), meanwhile, recently published a memo demanding a more libertarian approach to social issues within the party, though RNC Chair Reince Priebus has been forced to walk some of it back. As Yahoo News' Chris Moody points out:

Regardless, debate over same-sex marriage is not going away. Republicans must make a determination about whether it's worth the risk of losing a traditionally passionate bloc of supporters in exchange for a new one. If their numbers don't turn around soon, it's a gamble they may be forced to take.

For Paul and Cruz, there's no reason to necessarily take that gamble. Rather, they can take inoffensive federalist positions on the issue (as Paul has) and simply wait it out until the dust settles.

Bottom line: For now, Paul and Cruz are generating enough good press for themselves with their concern over civil liberties. It doesn't hurt that even their opponents have recognized this and walked back their opposition. In the long run, however, both men may find themselves leading a coalition that demands more substantive changes both on civil liberties and social issues within the GOP. That fact carries risk, but also opportunity, and if the GOP is to cease being moss covered, it may be necessary for those pruning it to take some fire.

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