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Republicans gathered at one of the largest hotels in the world, the Gaylord National Resort in National Harbor, Md., last weekend for the 40th Conservative Political Action Conference. Although there were thousands of attendees roaming the exhibit halls, languor from the defeat in November seemed to keep spirits low. It was, as many people told me, a “down year.”
Pedantic speeches about Benghazi, nostalgic Ronald Reagan films and corporately sponsored ballroom dinners lent a tawdry feel to the three-day event. Rubi(H2)O stickers on plastic water bottles were a failed attempt at self-deprecating humor. The lasting impression from Sarah Palin’s speech was the sip she took during it from a Super Big Gulp, a jab at New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s large-size soda ban.
But underneath the sensationalism was anger from libertarians toward establishment Republicans. The libertarians, whom the Republican National Committee has largely shut out, assumed a more energetic role at CPAC this year, using the failed election as evidence that the GOP should return to their philosophy’s ideals.
The libertarians, many of them young, are ambitious and sincere. They are not clean-shaven and preppy. They are not rich. Many accuse Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas and even Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan—whose budget, in the end, would increase government spending 3.5 percent each year—of having agendas that stray from fiscal conservatism. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s victory this year in the CPAC straw poll, which Mitt Romney won in 2012, suggests either that more tea party libertarians are stepping forward or that many traditional Republicans are disillusioned with a crumbling GOP establishment. In any case, the libertarians realize, as do progressives, that there is too much war, corruption and waste in Washington and the situation needs to improve.
But unlike many on the left, libertarian conservatives believe that big government is to blame, not corporate overreach.
“The problem with Obama is that Goldman Sachs was never prosecuted,” Bubba Atkinson, an editor at the Independent Journal Review, said in a group conversation at CPAC with three or four other young male Republicans with libertarian bents.
“It’s pretty easy [for Republicans to] say ‘hey, Jeffrey Immelt [CEO of GE] is buddies with Obama and GE didn’t pay federal taxes in the past few years,’ ” one of the men added. “That’s an easy sell.” But Republicans, he argued, do not address these problems.
These young CPAC-goers contended that government officials are puppeteers, exploiting corporate executives for more contributions, bribes and guaranteed lobbying positions after serving out their terms.
“The biggest problem is that government is in the seat of power,” Atkinson said. “They’re the ones who write the laws. They’re the ones who raise the taxes. The lobbying, the special interest groups, the corruption and the bribery—that’s not going to stop unless that power is gone. Who’s going to be spending millions of dollars to bribe a politician when he’s not in control of anything?”
Young libertarians have turned to Rand Paul, they said, because of his integrity and vigor. Paul states clearly that the problem is government intervention, they noted.
“He’s young,” a group member said in praise of the senator. “He speaks his mind.”
Paul exposes the waste in government spending, the man argued, and has the strength to filibuster a Senate confirmation hearing.
“The fact that he talked for 13 hours,” the CPAC attendee said, “it’s outstanding.”
But the group members, like many young people who came to the conference, were loath to think about the forces behind politics. Many libertarians at CPAC recognized that Washington is corrupt but they don’t ask why. Paul’s budget plan is simple, quick and effortless, the men asserted. It does not require a deep understanding of Wall Street or a digestion of the figures pertaining to climate change.
“I don’t really care where the money’s coming from,” one of the men said when I asked him about corporate contributions, “as long as you have access to knowledge. Money in politics buys debate time. It doesn’t bother me, as long as we recognize that and speak up ourselves.”
Paul’s desire to cut spending in all sectors, lower taxes and abolish agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration (he argues corporations can regulate air traffic themselves), is attractive to the younger generation of conservatives. It’s straightforward and does not deal with the nuances of economics.
When I asked the group members about regulation of corporate behavior in the derivatives market, for example, they were quick to change the subject. They are not experts, they said. They just have common sense.
“My friends were gung-ho Obama supporters,” Atkinson recalled, “and then they get a 2 percent tax hike on their payroll. They see it on their checks and all of a sudden Obama’s this bad guy.”
As corporate money flows out of the Republican Party and into the Democratic one—Obama raised almost $100 million more than Romney did in the 2012 election and $220 million more than John McCain in 2008—fiscal conservatives are quick to say that big government, which the mainstream media says is a Democratic virtue, is crushing personal and corporate influence. Many progressives attribute the Democrats’ success to their ability to edge out Republicans in corporate fundraising, whereas libertarians say the success is a result of a large PR campaign waged by the party itself.
Some libertarians at CPAC, for example, said that Democrats had taken control of the mainstream news media.
“There’s Comedy Central, CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, Huffington Post, Politico on the left,” a man from the group said, “and then Fox News on the right.”
But behind the reporting are the media outlets’ major shareholders and advertisers, not the Democratic Party.
The true narrative—that laws are signed by politicians but shaped by corporations—is hidden and ignored by the libertarians. There is little talk of corporate benefits, subsidies and incentives. Taxpayer dollars, many say, are funding greedy government officials and agencies. The 2008 bailout becomes a federal ploy to take control of the banks, for example, not a taxpayer handout to financial industries that squandered away billions of dollars and then gave top executives large bonuses.
Libertarians, in the end, are fighting the good fight with faulty information. And there is plenty of corporate news to bolster that idea.
“Look,” Atkinson said about people like Rand Paul, “at least somebody is saying something.”