Ramesh Ponnuru is sick. An ailment (“the crud”) had put the National Review senior editor’s attendance at the debate Thursday night in doubt, but he’s decided to brave it out. As he talks to the crowd in the Heritage Foundation’s Lehrman Auditorium, his voice breaks several times. He speaks slowly and pauses to gather his words. He leans on the podium.
Ponnuru doesn’t deny that some sort of “libertarian vote” exists, but unlike previous panelist Cato Institute* executive vice president David Boaz, he doesn’t think it’s likely to be a crucial swing vote in any national election. It’s too small and, more importantly, “divided.”
Libertarians who care more about economic issues tend to wail and moan and vote Republican. Those who care more about social issues go through similar motions and vote Democrat. And of course: “Some of them are going to vote libertarian for whatever reason people do that.”
The quip draws a few laughs, and Ponnuru struggles on to make his case. Over the last few years, both political parties have been inching right on social issues, left on economic ones. Why? Because elite opinion is slowly coming in line with popular opinion.
Ponnuru doubts whether President Bush could have been elected if he didn’t support expanding Medicare to cover prescription drugs, or reelected if he didn’t deliver on that promise. Further, he argues that to get hold of Congress again, Republicans are going to have to address voters’ “economic anxieties,” particularly about healthcare.
He also doubts that either party will make a real push for the libertarian vote because, “in political terms, it’s like entering an alliance with a leech.” But he does think that libertarians can get something out of supporting conservatives because conservatism is in many ways more libertarian than it used to be.
It’s not much, but Ponnuru argues that the present political situation doesn’t offer many better options.
THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE a two-track debate. First, an exchange between a conservative and a libertarian, then a liberal and a classical liberal. Moderator and America’s Future Foundation executive director David Kirby said it should be “a little bit like watching a ping pong match with two balls.”
But that’s not what the panelists have in mind. Ponnuru warns us he will “break the rules a little bit.” The next panelist, Cato vice president for research Brink Lindsey, also says that he might “stray from the agreed upon format and talk more generally.”
Lindsey wrote a piece that was published in the New Republic last December titled “Liberaltarians.” It argued that an alliance between liberals and libertarians would be possible if liberals would “meet us half way.” He tells us this because he wants to talk about some of the criticism, which clearly stung.
“A lot of the commentary by professionals was negative,” he says, which is a bit of an understatement. Another panelist tonight, New Republic senior editor Jonathan Chait, responded to his overture, in print, by quoting Michael Corleone: “My offer is this: nothing.”
Lindsey uses this as evidence that the country’s elites are stuck in a deeply “reactionary politics” of both left and right. He contrasts their stubbornness on economic and cultural issues with the “deep preideological [libertarian] impulse in the American electorate.”
Out there in Real America, people want lower taxes and are suspicious of government schemes. They believe in the work ethic and personal responsibility. What they are looking for politically is a movement that will embrace both the social change of the '60s and the economic change of the '80s.
“No one has emerged to embraced this libertarian change in its totality,” Lindsey says, and he points fingers. Ponnuru and Chait are examples of our bitter partisan stalemate that we’d do well to get beyond
Lindsey closes by inviting the audience to join his “coalition of the homeless: liberaltarians.”
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