Is the GOP's 'Big Tent' Getting Too Big?

Ryan Sager has a warning for the Republican Party: After years of relative harmony among libertarians and social conservatives, the two factions are starting to grow wider apart.

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In his new book, “The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians and the Battle to Control the Republican Party,” Sager documents what brought these two groups together under a big tent—and what is today driving them apart.

Sager, a columnist and blogger for the New York Post and, has served on the editorial board of the New York Post and formerly worked for the New York Sun.

The following is an interview with Sager about his new book.

Is it possible that the War on Terror will unite traditionalists and libertarians in a similar fashion as the Cold War?

Sager: That’s a question I posed to virtually all of my interview subjects when researching the book, especially to the Republican Party elders and conservative-movement historians. The short answer is: no. The somewhat longer answer is that while the Cold War by-and-large tamped down tensions within the conservative movement, the War on Terror is almost forcing them to the surface. Whether it’s the Patriot Act, domestic surveillance, the war in Iraq, or a host of other issues, there’s a lot about the War on Terror that gives libertarians cause to be anxious. And with the Republican Party concurrently abandoning small government when it comes to both fiscal and social policy, there’s not much about the GOP left for libertarians to love.

Can any political party ever be so persuasive as to win and maintain a majority while legislating nearly all of its most important beliefs?

Sager: No one’s asking the Republican Party to perform miracles, either politically or in terms of policy. But, as a start, they might try not legislating in a way directly contrary to their core beliefs. I spend a chapter in my book detailing how virtually every facet of President Bush’s much-touted “Ownership Society” fell apart when the rubber met the road, despite the Republican Party’s holding unprecedented power in Washington, D.C., over the last five-plus years. Sometimes the problem has been poor salesmanship, but mostly it has just been an easy abandonment of principle. Instead of real education reform, we have No Child Left Behind, which is a joke. Instead of real health-care reform, we have the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, the first new entitlement in a generation. No one’s talking about legislating all of the conservative movement’s beliefs. But how about starting with at least one or two?

Can any political party ever be so persuasive as to win a majority and maintain ideological purity without the self-destruction of the opposition party?

Sager: The Republican Party has been blessed to see the utter self-destruction of the Democratic Party since September 11, 2001. Yet, somehow, it’s managed in the time since both to abandon its principles and to put its congressional majority in mortal danger.

Do libertarians who advocate a laissez-faire attitude toward both social and economic policy have an effective alternative to the GOP? Is a defection to the Democrats even possible?

Sager: I think the question is no longer will libertarians start defecting to the Democratic Party, but how many already have, and how many more will it take before we start seeing a major upheaval. Remember, fewer than 70,000 votes among Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico would have swung the Electoral College to John Kerry in 2004. While proper, self-identified “libertarians” are not very numerous, libertarian-minded voters are a significant bloc in America’s West. The Democrats, contrary to all appearances, aren’t entirely brain dead. There are people already hard at work trying to figure out how to pick up disaffected small-government voters from the GOP.

In your “Breaking Apart” chapter, you list low taxes, less regulation of business, school choice, free trade, and Social Security Reform as some of the primary concerns of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party. What has the GOP done in the last five years on those fronts that the libertarian wing would appreciate?

Sager: At the risk of sounding a bit harsh: nothing. OK, next to nothing. Taxes have been cut, but when you explode spending at the same time, you’re just guaranteeing a future tax hike. The health-savings accounts tucked into the Medicare bill may yet prove to be a significant free-market reform of health care, or at least the seeds of one, but they could have been won at a less drastic cost. Other than that, the GOP has been busy ending free speech in America with the McCain-Feingold bill, increasing education spending without winning anything in terms of school choice, and passing massive, pork-laden bills such as the farm and highway monstrosities.

If our national legislature is meant to be an amalgamation of different interests from across the nation, and each of these interests want federal money for itself, why is pork barrel spending an impediment to our democracy? Aren’t the legislators just representing their constituents’ interests?

Sager: To loosely paraphrase the president’s favorite philosopher: The pork will always be with us. There’s no way to end wasteful spending entirely. What would politicians do all day? And to the extent a certain amount of horse trading helps the party achieve its policy objectives, well, that’s a price many would be willing to pay. But earmarks in Washington, D.C., have exploded from 1,400 in 1995 to 14,000 in 2005 — a ten-fold increase. The Republican Congress has allowed pork to become its reason for getting out of bed in the morning. I like bacon as much as the next guy, but it’s time for these porkers to try a grapefruit.

Do you view our system of government as primarily a democracy or primarily a republic? How might this inform your views on wasteful government “earmarks” for individual states and districts?

Sager: Our Constitution establishes a Republican form of government. Though the advantages of such a system are overwhelming, and our founders were wise men, one side effect is that money gets wasted. Remarkably, less money seems to get wasted when we have divided government than when one party holds both the presidency and the Congress. The parties, in effect, serve as a check on each other. That’s something a lot of small-government voters are thinking of going into the midterms.

Were the lack of public support for and the ensuing defeat of President Bush’s Social Security semi-privatization proof that any sort of change in large-scale federal aid faces an uphill battle?

Sager: Absolutely. Any entitlement reform is going to come with some serious political pain. But, especially speaking as a member of the younger generation, it’s something that needs to happen before America’s economy is crushed by the tax-burden of caring for the Baby Boomers. In a book where I’m not very nice to George W. Bush, I feel it’s imperative to give him full credit for taking on Social Security in a politically bold and principled way. If there’s one domestic policy area where Bush has real conviction, this is it. And, while he lost the battle, he showed that the Republican Party can survive the war. Social Security is no longer the third-rail of American politics. Bush and a number of GOP congressional candidates did just fine in 2004 while taking a clear position in favor of reform.

You claim that the Republicans got beat by Bill Clinton through style, and that their substance could have (and in many ways, did) won the day. But if it takes superb style to deliver on the substance of a policy, might that amount to trickery on the part of the politician?

Sager: I don’t think so at all. Public policy is complicated stuff. Experts dedicate their lives to it and reach opposite conclusions. It takes a great leader and a great communicator to know where he believes the country should go and to convince them that he’s right. It takes an even better one of both to force reluctant congressmen to come along for the ride.

If a politician has to use euphemisms such as “preservation” and “protection” for budget cuts, as Newt Gingrich was advised to do in the 1990s, does that mean that budget cuts are unpopular?

Sager: Yes. No one likes what they perceive as a beneficial program to be cut. But they also don’t like the government running up a huge debt or raising their taxes. So, it all comes down to how you frame an issue in the public’s mind.

What is happening in the Western U.S. that should have Republicans worried?

Sager: Democrats are winning elections. That’s one thing they might worry about. In 2000, Democrats held none of the governorships in the eight states of the interior West — that’s Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. After 2004, they now hold four, and could pick up another one or two in 2006. In 2004, Colorado sent Democrat Ken Salazar to the Senate, replacing a Republican. Salazar’s brother picked up a House seat in the state. This year, we may see Sen. Conrad Burns (R.-Mont.) lose his seat. A number of Republican House seats in the interior West are in serious danger in 2006 as well. There are a number of demographic and ideological trends at work in the interior West — California and the rest of the Pacific Coast are already gone to the GOP — that I go into in some depth in my book. But, basically, the region is more libertarian and less Evangelical, meaning voters there are increasingly disaffected with the direction of the GOP and open to a pitch from the Democrats.

What is the likely direction of American conservatism?

Sager: To give a bit of a paradoxical answer, if I knew I wouldn’t have written the book. My conclusion is that we’re at what Ronald Reagan might call another time for choosing. The party’s been tilting too far toward southern conservatism, concerned with religion, tradition, and morality, and too far away from western conservatism, which puts a premium on freedom, independence, and privacy. If the GOP keeps tilting toward the South, I think it’s in serious trouble. If it tilts back West, I think it can avoid catastrophe.

Will 2008 be the year that fractures the big tent?

Sager: Well, it will be the year things come to a head, one way or another.

Is there any likely candidate in the 2008 GOP field that could bring about a redirection of conservatism?

Sager: I think one promising sign is that the two leading candidates for the GOP nomination, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, would both be likely to lead the party back in a small-government direction. Both could be strong leaders is the War on Terror. Giuliani is passionate about conservative reform, from his pioneering of welfare reform in New York City to his longstanding advocacy of school choice. McCain is a longtime crusader against pork, though he’s never shown much passion for a broader shrinking of government.

Who do you see emerging as the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2008?

Sager: Rudy Giuliani. All indications so far are that he could clean McCain’s clock in a GOP primary. The third man to watch, though, is Mitt Romney, who’s likely to emerge as the social conservative alternative to the two social moderates currently in the lead. Whatever happens on the GOP side coming into 2008, it’s going to be one heck of a show.