The Libertarian Republican Heritage
An exercise in political autobiography
Editorial note: The following is the second and final part of a speech to the Republican Liberty Caucus of California, delivered March 2, 2013. The first part appeared on Monday, and can be seen here.
In the summer of 1983, there was a major split in the Libertarian Party. I had been a member since 1977. The split took out a good portion of the Party’s leading activists, and most of the money: although at the time the internal conflict looked to be over organizational and even personal issues, the split went much deeper than that – but it took time for the differences to play out. However, that’s another story: the story I want to tell you now is how an intrepid band of libertarians left the LP, and founded the first serious attempt to create an explicitly libertarian Republican organization.
In the wake of what was a debilitating split, two problems with the LP appeared insuperable: 1) it was clear to me, and a few others, that the LP had peaked. After a few years of seemingly unstoppable growth – we got 5.5 percent for governor [of California, in 1978], and the same candidate – Ed Clark – had polled nearly a million votes [for President] in 1980, although John Anderson’s third party campaign stole much of the media spotlight from the LP that year. Beyond that, however, we saw no opportunities for further growth, which led to the second big problem with the LP: ballot access laws. More than half the Party’s resources were spent just getting on the ballot: after that, there wasn’t much left to put into actually campaigning.
It was time, a few of us decided, to enter the Republican party – not as any kind of capitulation to conservatism, or Reaganism, but as an organized group with an ideological agenda. And so, in the summer of 1986, the Libertarian Republican Organizing Committee was born.
There has been one previous effort, back in the mid-seventies, known as the Libertarian Republican Alliance, but the LRA was mostly an effort to soft-peddle the more angular aspects of libertarianism – and that is most emphatically not what we were attempting. We had in mind quite a different strategy: we didn’t play down anything, least of all the one big bone of contention between ourselves and conservative Republicans – opposition to our foreign policy of global intervention. Convinced that the question of war, peace, and imperialism is the key issue of our times – and the key to actually reducing the size and power of the federal government – we were determined to emphasize this aspect of the libertarian program to our Republican audience. We were convinced that a major war was in the making, that the battleground was likely to be in the Middle East – and that, in order to effectively oppose it, we had to create a significant anti-interventionist tendency in the GOP. (In retrospect, a pretty accurate prediction.)
Our first task was propagandistic: that is, we wanted to get out our ideas, because that, in the final analysis, is what we were selling. We put out a monthly magazine, initially called Libertarian Agenda, and later rechristened The Libertarian Republican. At first eight pages, and later sixteen, the back numbers document our efforts to build a libertarian caucus in the Republican party – our triumphs and trials, our achievements and our errors. And we did not lack for the latter.
Our immediate prospects were not good. The cold war was still raging: foreign policy, our key issue, was a major barrier standing in the way of making many recruits. Social issues, too, were an obstacle, at least as far as reaching out to the party’s conservative wing was concerned. The result was that we made a conscious decision to focus our recruiting efforts on the so-called "moderate" faction of the GOP – in California, where we had the most members, this meant an alliance with the California Republican League (CRL). But this turned out to be a dead end: although we did manage to recruit a few members and sympathizers from this group, our success was limited.
Yet we persevered. And out in the real world, the times they were a changing. The Communist bloc was beginning to implode, and we had the foresight to see that before the story broke into the headlines. For example, in the August 1988 issue of The Libertarian Republican, the headline proclaims "Turmoil in the Soviet Union," and a subhead asks "Is the sun setting on the Evil Empire?" Our answer to that question was basically yes. To quote from that article:
"It is no longer inconceivable that the territorial integrity of the USSR itself could be in danger. Nationalist uprisings in Armenia and the Baltics could ignite a conflagration that would engulf all of Eastern Europe. Many commentators are asking whether Gorbachev can survive the next few years. Yet in light of recent developments, the real question is: can the Soviet Union survive the next few years?"
That same month, we attended the 1988 Republican National Convention: we had a great big literature table set up right next to the entrance to the convention hall where the delegates met. We passed out thousands of copies of The Libertarian Republican, and in addition we had on hand our alternative platform: a 35-page document entitled A Vision of Liberty: Platform Planks for a New Republican Majority. To go back and read that today is quite an experience; in it, we accurately predicted the end of the Soviet Union, and called for major defense cuts, including the abolition of NATO. We also called for massive spending cuts in every area: we did many interviews with the media, and the reception we got was very encouraging.
We were right about the end of the Soviet Union – it didn’t survive, and that was the key to a real breakthrough for us libertarian Republicans. Suddenly, our membership figures started to climb, and we started to organize LROC chapters all across the country.
With the end of Communism there was a wide open debate in the conservative movement over what was the proper foreign policy for the post-cold war era. We switched our strategic perspective to reaching out to questioning conservatives in search of a consistent worldview. Now remember we weren’t trimming our libertarian principles and looking to endorse any old Republican. Nor were we looking to jump on board the conservative bandwagon, and pretend to be Reaganites. With all the turmoil in the conservative movement, at that time, we wanted to take advantage of the situation and win conservatives to libertarianism.
Coinciding with this new turn was the run-up to the first Iraq war: George Herbert Walker Bush’s war for what he called a "new world order." Saddam Hussein had just invaded Kuwait, which he claimed was the "19th province" of Iraq. Why did the United States have an interest in ensuring that the Emir of Kuwait stay on his throne? According to James Baker, it was "jobs, jobs, jobs" – although how that was supposed to work, exactly, wasn’t at all clear. The only job we could see being preserved was that of the Emir himself, and that is how we presented our arguments against the war to our Republican audience – on the eve of the war, the headline in The Libertarian Republican read: "Must Americans Die for the Emir of Kuwait?"
The end of the cold war had disabused a growing number of conservatives of their reflexively interventionist instincts, and a growing chorus of conservative voices was raised against the administration’s war cries. Pat Buchanan, Bob Novak, and a number of others began to speak out against this foolish adventurism, and therein we saw an opportunity not to be passed up.
Things were going well for LROC: we had more members than ever, and even a few organized chapters, but there was just one problem – a big problem. We didn’t have any candidates. We had searched in vain for a candidate – a candidate for anything – who shared our foreign policy views as well as our commitment to smaller government and civil liberties. To no avail. We had a magazine, more members than ever, and even some contacts in the higher reaches of GOP officialdom – but no candidate to get them behind.
The first Gulf war solved that problem for us. Pat Buchanan was well-known as a leader of the conservative movement, and he was just beginning to break from the cold war conservatism that had made knee-jerk militarism the signal characteristic of the American right-wing. His vocal critique of Bush’s war in the Middle East had thrown him into the spotlight – and this gave me an idea. Why not launch a draft Buchanan for President movement?
Not that we expected him to run: after all, why would a conservative commentator take on a sitting President of his own party, especially when he would have to give up all the perks and privileges of a famous pundit: his television show, his widely-read newspaper column, and esteem and support from GOP partisans? He would have to be crazy to do so – or so we thought. With this expectation in mind, we launched the Buchanan for President committees anyway, thus filling in a big gap in LROC’s strategy. We had a candidate at last! Never mind that he had no intention of running.
Or so we thought.
We came to the 1991 California Republican Party convention, held right here in Sacramento, with a huge supply of Buchanan for President literature and a giant picture of Pat mounted on an easel behind our table, which was located up in the balcony alongside all the other groups displaying their wares. It just happened to be the weekend that President Bush launched Operation Desert Storm. As news of the invasion was flashed across a giant television screen downstairs, we watched the delegates cheering – but upstairs, where most of the student types and younger folk were gathered, the mood was glum. There was a Republican President proclaiming the start of his war for a "new world order," and these very conservative young people were far from enthusiastic. Indeed, they were utterly contemptuous, and they gathered around our table, their voices rising in something more than mere annoyance.
Suddenly, I saw a figure across the room start to approach our table. It was none other than Bay Buchanan, Pat’s sister. She came up to us and expressed her appreciation for our efforts: "You guys are great!" she told us. Well, thank you, I replied, but what about your brother? Why don’t you try to convince him that running for President is his destiny?
She promised that she would, but I was skeptical. And when we didn’t hear back from her, we went ahead with our Plan B – getting Ron Paul to run in the Republican presidential primaries. This was almost a done deal, a couple of months later, and we even ran an article in The Libertarian Republican hinting that Ron would be running: a few weeks later, however, we were shocked to learn that Pat was indeed in the running! A few days after we learned this, Pat announced his primary challenge. Ron, who had actually been planning on running, deferred to Pat – and the most exciting challenge to the GOP Establishment in decades was on!
We didn’t agree with everything Pat said or did, but on the key issue of our time – the question of war and peace in the Middle East – he stood up against the War Party. And boy did he take the heat for it! From the beginning, Pat realized who the chief enemy was: that troublesome little faction known as the neoconservatives, and he took them on with the fiery rhetoric for which he is justly famous. They fired back, and if you want to see the historical precedent for the kind of smear campaign we just saw played out against Chuck Hagel, then the furious attacks on Pat from those quarters served as a model.
The big problem for the neocons, however, was that the smear campaign didn’t work. Although Buchanan didn’t quite win a majority of the votes in the New Hampshire primary, he managed to garner a whopping 38 percent, which was perceived as a moral and political victory over an incumbent President. The fight was on – and what a glorious fight it was!
I won’t go into the ups and downs of that campaign: there were some problems with it, from our perspective – we didn’t agree with his protectionist stance – but these paled before the main benefit: the precedent of having a credible Republican presidential aspirant campaigning against both the welfare state and the warfare state.
The Buchanan campaign – or, rather, campaigns – I would argue, paved the way for Ron Paul’s success a decade or so later. Aside from the many activists who participated in both movements, intellectually the Buchananites represented an earlier form of the populist anti-interventionist anti-Washington sentiment that would provide the foundations of the Ron Paul phenomenon.
Well, I promised you a talk on "Our Libertarian Republican Heritage," and that is what I delivered. But the story doesn’t end there – far from it. The people in this room are the future of the Republican party, if there is to be one. I hope I have both informed and inspired you to take the fight to a new level, and create some history of your own.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
I’m on Twitter quite a bit these days, and having a lot of fun: indeed, I just passed 3,000 "followers"! Help me cross the 4000 mark by following me here.
I’ve also written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Forward by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
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- The Orlando Horror – June 12th, 2016