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We’ve Reached Peak Libertarianism — And It’s Literally Killing Us

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

We have now reached peak Libertarianism, and this bizarre experiment that has been promoted by the billionaire class for over 40 years is literally killing us.

Back in the years before Reagan, a real estate lobbying group called the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) came up with the idea of creating a political party to justify deregulating the real estate and finance industries so they could make more money. The party would give them ideological and political cover, and they developed an elaborate theology around it.

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GOP’s Libertarians Aren’t All That Libertarian

In Republican primary politics, the libertarian brand carries cachet, which explains why many of the GOP’s presidential candidates are battling to position themselves as the one true standard-bearer of small government conservatism. But a funny thing is happening on the way to the Republican primaries: The whole notion of small government libertarianism has been hijacked by politicians who often represent the opposite.

Take Lindsey Graham, whose political action committee is staffing up for the South Carolina Republican senator’s possible presidential run. In an interview with an Iowa newspaper earlier this month, Graham said: “Libertarians want smaller government. Count me in. Libertarians want oversight of government programs and making sure that your freedoms are not easily compromised. Count me in.”

Yet, despite that rhetoric, Graham has been one of the most outspoken proponents of mass surveillance. Indeed, in response to news that the National Security Agency has been vacuuming up millions of Americans’ telephone calls, there was no sign of Graham’s purported small government libertarianism. Instead, he said in 2013, “I’m glad that activity is going on” and declared, “I’m sure we should be doing this.”

Similarly, Texas Republican senator Ted Cruz has reportedly raised millions for his presidential bid, after launching his campaign on a promise of smaller government.

What Cruz doesn’t say in his speeches railing on “unelected bureaucrats” is that he has spent much of his professional life as an unelected government employee, first as an appointee in George W. Bush’s administration, then as an appointee in Texas’ state government. Also unmentioned in Cruz’s announcement speech at Liberty University was data showing that the conservative school has received one of the largest amounts of government Pell Grant funding of any nonprofit university in America, according to the Huffington Post. That fact can be described with a lot of words, but “libertarian” probably isn’t one of them.

Then there is Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, the candidate who most openly embraces the libertarian brand.

As a senator, he more than others has strayed from GOP orthodoxy and taken some genuinely strong libertarian positions — most notably against the ongoing drug war, surveillance, and the militarization of America’s domestic police force. He has also tried to foment a discussion about the taboo topic of government subsidies to corporations. In January, he said that “we will not cut one penny from the safety net until we’ve cut every penny from corporate welfare” and last month he said that if elected president, he’d slash business subsidies “so I don’t have to cut the Social Security of someone who lives on Social Security.”

However, Paul’s pledges about corporate welfare apparently do not extend to the Pentagon, which has often been a big repository of such welfare for defense contractors. As Time reported in March, “Just weeks before announcing his 2016 presidential bid … Paul is completing an about-face on a longstanding pledge to curb the growth in defense spending.” The magazine noted that he introduced legislation “calling for a nearly $190 billion infusion to the defense budget over the next two years — a roughly 16 percent increase.”

Additionally, Paul is anti-choice on the abortion issue. That’s right, for all of his anti-big-government rhetoric, he supports using the power of huge government to ban women from making their own choices about whether or not to terminate pregnancies.

While few believe across-the-board libertarianism is a pragmatic governing strategy, some of that ideology’s core tenets — like respect for privacy and civil liberties — are valuable, constructive ideals. But when the most famous libertarian icons so often contradict themselves, those ideals are undermined. They end up seeming less like the building blocks of a principled belief system and more like talking points propping up a cheap brand — one designed to hide shopworn partisanship.

David Sirota is a senior writer at the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books Hostile Takeover, The Uprising, and Back to Our Future. Email him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com. 

Photo: U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

Analysis: Paul’s Challenge Is Moving Beyond Libertarian Niche

By Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Sen. Rand Paul’s jump into the 2016 presidential contest underscored the challenges ahead for the Kentucky Republican as he tries to move beyond his libertarian niche to find a foothold in the campaign for the White House.

In the months-long unofficial part of his campaign, Paul has burnished his image as an unusual candidate for his party, visiting inner cities and college campuses, and talking about issues such as reducing penalties for drug use as he courts the young and minority voters. But to succeed Paul will have to shore up his appeal among the Republican base of older white voters — a dual need that carries the risk of forcing him into a more conventional posture.

Already his efforts have raised the question of whether he is canting his long-held views to feed his presidential ambition — and whether that will attract more supporters or fewer.

Much of the early attention he has received, particularly from voters who usually spurn Republicans, stemmed from his noninterventionist foreign policy positions and opposition to defense spending.

But he recently advocated a broad, $190 billion expansion of the Defense Department budget and has planned a South Carolina campaign visit this week that will feature an aircraft carrier as his backdrop.

He attempted to appeal to both his target audience and traditional Republicans on Tuesday with an announcement that emphasized his outsider credentials — he has been a practicing eye surgeon — and de-emphasized his term as senator. He also called for congressional term limits and broad changes to the way Washington operates.

“I have a vision for America,” he told hundreds of supporters. “I want to be part of a return to prosperity … a return to a government restrained by the Constitution, a return to privacy, opportunity, liberty.”

Although he criticized the Obama administration’s spending, he did not spare criticism of his own party.

“Too often when Republicans have won, we have squandered our opportunity by becoming part of the Washington machine,” he said. “That is not who I am.”

The staging of Paul’s announcement reflected his effort to expand the Republican base: introducing him were former Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. and the Rev. Jerry Stephenson, who are both African-American; Kentucky state Sen. Ralph Alvarado, a Latino; and a young University of Kentucky student, Lauren Bosler.

The slogan “Defeat the Washington machine; unleash the American dream” adorned the lectern at which they spoke. (Paul’s father, three-time presidential candidate and former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, was present but did not speak.)

A series of videos accented Sen. Paul’s call for reducing drug conviction penalties and his objections to collection of telephone data by the nation’s spy agencies — issues that he plumbed as he neared his formal announcement and returned to emphatically on Tuesday.

Absent was the red meat of vital importance to the Republican base: No mention was made of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, immigration or the religious freedom debate that has galvanized conservatives in recent days.

Cato Institute scholar David Boaz said that to succeed, Paul will have to draw new participants into the nominating process in big numbers, particularly in states where Republican contests are open to non-GOP voters.

“He’s going to get hit hard from both the left and the neocon right, and he hasn’t yet played politics at this stage, so I don’t know how good he’ll be,” said Boaz, author of The Libertarian Mind. “In the primary, there clearly are groups of voters who are not going to be attracted to the message that he’s offering, so one of his challenges is to get some of those independents to come into open primaries and to get young people to come into open primaries and especially the Iowa caucuses.”

The dual effort to appeal to traditional Republicans and those not allied with the party represents Paul’s greatest challenge in the primaries, and potentially his greatest strength in a general election, said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.

“He’s so far from a conventional Republican, in terms of both his behavior and ideological stance,” Voss said. “He hopes to appeal to people who are not the standard Republican constituency, people more skeptical of military spending or projecting American muscle abroad. … That will help him appeal to a general-election audience, but in the short term, that’s a challenge.”

The attacks have already begun. Shortly before Paul announced his intentions, a group called the Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America launched a $1 million ad buy in the early-voting states of Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, and South Carolina that deemed Paul’s foreign policy dangerous, according to The New York Times.

Paul spent a substantial part of his speech defending his national security views.

“I envision an America with a national defense that is unparalleled, undefeatable, and unencumbered by overseas nation-building,” Paul said.

Many political observers expect national security to be a more dominant theme in 2016 than in recent elections, due to the well-publicized brutality of Islamic State, the proposed nuclear deal with Iran, Russia’s behavior in Ukraine, and other problems overseas. All of the other potential presidential candidates have demanded a more aggressive posture than has Paul.

“Clearly, many would argue that he is an isolationist,” said former Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and chairman of a group called Americans for Peace Prosperity and Security. “I think his challenge is can he keep his supporters and then move to a more peace-through-strength orientation.”

Tuesday’s speech by Paul, whose 2010 election was fueled by the rise of the tea party, received solid marks from prominent libertarians.

“He hit all the right notes in terms of signaling that he is serious about the libertarian dimension of his policy. I don’t consider him a hard-core libertarian. I consider him libertarian-ish. He brought that to Louisville today,” said Nick Gillespie, editor in chief of Reason.com.

In coming days, Paul plans to barnstorm the early-contest states, with events scheduled in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Iowa, and Nevada.

Paul entered the race eight days after his Republican colleague, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, became the first major candidate to announce that he would seek the White House. Cruz, a tea party favorite who gained fame for a nearly 22-hour filibuster urging the defunding of Obama’s health care overhaul, appeals to many of the same voters who would form Paul’s base.

Paul and Cruz have been overshadowed during the last few months by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has put on a fierce fundraising effort, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose anti-union and Midwestern sensibilities have found favor among many Republicans. Neither has formally announced, but both are expected to.

Some political veterans expect Paul to make a splash in the GOP nominating contest, as his father did, but question whether voters could picture him as the leader of the free world.

“He does make people sit up and listen,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who advised Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012. “But one of the big challenges that Rand Paul will have is answering the question, ‘Is this a candidate that I can picture in the Oval Office?’ ”

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Rand Paul’s Fair-Weather Compassion

If you haven’t seen the video or photos yet, trust me, you will. Rand Paul in blue scrubs and hiking boots, bringing sight to the blind in an operating room in Guatemala — could there be a more perfect visual for a White House hopeful? And that’s before we even get to the metaphors about restoring vision and fixing problems.

A flattering segment on NBC’s Meet the Press was just the start of extracting the gold from this rich political vein. Campaign ads inevitably will feature video of the senator-surgeon performing the pro bono eye operations, as will a Citizens United documentary about Paul. The conservative group sent a camera crew and a drone to shoot footage him in action in Guatemala.

Let’s stipulate that whatever you think of Paul’s views or the political entourage he brought along, the Kentucky Republican transformed lives on that trip. It was a wonderfully compassionate volunteer act — and that’s where things get complicated.

Paul has been working steadily to create his personal brand of compassionate conservatism, and it’s more substantive than outreach. His causes include restoring voting rights to felons, reforming drug sentencing laws and — after Ferguson — demilitarizing the police. He is a champion of charter schools, which many black parents are seeking out for their children. He has proposed economic incentives to try to revive Detroit. He and Democratic senator Cory Booker are pushing legislation to make it easier for people to create new lives — including expunging or sealing convictions for some juveniles and lifting bans on post-prison food stamps and welfare benefits for some offenders.

All of that is broadly appealing. It’s also consistent with libertarian and conservative principles such as more personal choice, less government intrusion, lower taxes and — in the case of the prison and sentencing reforms — saving government money by reducing recidivism and prison populations. The emphasis is on the “conservative” part of the phrase.

The man who invented the brand and rode it all the way to the White House, George W. Bush, focused on the compassion part. To the dismay of conservatives, he enlarged the federal role in education (he called it “the civil rights issue of our time” and signed the No Child Left Behind Act) and spent a bundle of borrowed money to fight AIDS in Africa, launch a Medicare prescription drug program and try to impose democracy on Iraq.

What you might call fair-weather compassion — compassion that’s limited to policies that cut spending or, at the very least, don’t cost more — is a conservative hallmark in the post-Bush era. But Paul trumped his colleagues and won plaudits from groups like FreedomWorks with a 2013 budget that would have balanced in a lightning-fast five years. It repealed the Affordable Care Act and killed the departments of Commerce, Education, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development. It also privatized Medicare, allowed private Social Security accounts, and shifted Medicaid and food stamps — designed to grow and shrink depending on need — to a system of capped grants to the states. “Gut” was the liberal verb of choice.

Paul’s 2011 budget blueprint would have phased out all foreign aid. “This would cause misery for millions of people on AIDS treatment. It would betray hundreds of thousands of children receiving … malaria treatment,” former Bush aide Michael Gerson said last weekend on NBC after the Paul-in-Guatemala segment aired. “This is a perfect case of how a person can have good intentions but how an ideology can cause terrible misery.”

The ACA, with its premium subsidies and Medicaid expansion, is designed to help just the types of people Paul served in Guatemala. In fact, more than 290,000 newly eligible people had signed up for Medicaid in his home state by mid-April. Yet last year Paul was willing to shut down the government in an attempt to defund the law.

Paul did not release a budget this year, and he said in May that he is “not sure” that Kentucky’s ACA insurance marketplace (Kynect) should be dismantled. Is he giving himself some room to maneuver? Unclear. He continues to favor repeal of the entire ACA and seems most concerned about its impact on local hospitals. One had to lay off 50 people due to the law, he said, so “now we’ve got more people in the wagon, and less people pulling the wagon.”

What he said was debatable — CNHI News Service reported that the hospital, T.J. Samson in Glasgow, is expected to do better financially under the new health law than it did under previous policies. Beyond that, does Paul really want to snatch Medicaid away from nearly 300,000 of his least fortunate constituents? The answer to that question will help determine whether those compassionate images from Guatemala are merely images, or something more.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo: Talk Radio News Service via Flickr

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