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."
JONATHAN CHAIT RESPONDS BY SAYING that Lindsey has painted a false picture of himself and Ponnuru as vicious partisans. They really agree with each other about our current political situation, not because they want to but because they are forced to by the evidence.
He asks for a show of hands. How many people in the audience thought expanding Medicare to cover prescription drugs was a good idea "on moral grounds"?
Not one person raises a hand. Chait tells us that on the eve of the vote, according to one survey, over 86 percent of Americans agreed with the statement. Only 7 percent disagreed.
That 7 percent, he says, represents the upper limit of the libertarian vote, and even that might be too high. He talks us through Bill Clinton's successes in the 1990s, when he convinced voters that Republicans were threatening "Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment."
Chait says that the American people's "operational liberalism" hasn't always translated into Democratic victories for three reasons. One, the Republicans have a well-oiled "machine" to convince voters that the Dems have bad character. Two, Democrats have allowed themselves to be painted as wimps on defense issues. Three, "Social issues are a bit of a problem."
Given the disposition of the average American voter, Chait speaks for liberals in saying that a liberal-libertarian alliance is "not an offer I feel like I can't refuse."
EVERYBODY EXCEPT FOR DAVID BOAZ has run long on their opening statements, so Kirby cuts down the response time, and that further crimps the time available for the audience to ask questions.
Boaz counters Chait's 7 percent figure by posing the question, How many Americans would say that they were undertaxed? It would likely produce a similarly lopsided result, which would not be terribly meaningful for political operatives.
"I think all [poll] numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. Numbers from Washington should be taken with an extra grain of salt," Boaz says, in response to a question from the audience.
One other fun conflict comes between Lindsey and Boaz. D.C. Examiner columnist Tim Carney asks how they can consider government-funded embryonic stem cell research a libertarian position. Boaz says that, properly speaking, it isn't. Lindsey counters that if the government is going to fund scientific research then it ought to fund this. The prohibition can only be based on sectarian religious considerations. Boaz jokingly denounces him as a squish.
At least... I think he was joking.
(*Full disclosure: Once upon a time, I was employed by the Cato Institute. I also donated money to America's Future Foundation, which organized the event.)
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