"You guys are lame," Jason said.
"You guys? Which guys?"
I try to be patient with Jason. He belongs to the angry libertarian crowd, angry at George W. Bush for Iraq, prescription drugs and much more.
Jason and I were leaving an AEI talkfest featuring Newt Gingrich and Mike Pence, a member of Congress from Indiana and the current chair of the House Republican Study Committee. Gingrich and Pence had been talking about the future of conservatism. Everyone believed conservatism stood at a crossroads, had fallen into crisis, had corrupted itself with pork barrel spending.
"You know, conservatives. Newt was all over the place, and Pence didn't have any answers, just excuses."
Conservative? Jason had just issued ultimate libertarian swear word, but I wasn't going to take the bait. And I didn't want to talk about Iraq.
"I don't know about that. Newt says things out loud that I often think but would never say. He tries hard to be interesting and sometimes he is. Anyway, Newt did a lot to change the country so I listen to him even when he's annoying. As for Pence..."
"Pence is obviously a religious nut."
Jason says things point blank like that to provoke people. I'm never sure if he means what he says.
"You mean the stuff about the federal marriage amendment and the embryonic research?"
"Yeah, and the stuff about condemning Darwin as a heretic."
"Stop it. Have you been reading The Nation again? Actually I was thinking about going back to the office and sending Pence a valentine in the form of an op-ed..."
"Uh, I don't think he's cool with the idea of getting a valentine from a guy."
I laughed. "It's a metaphor you idiot. But did you listen to what Pence said? When was the last time a Republican member of Congress spoke with any passion at all about limited government or individual liberty?
"I mean, Pence meant it. At least I think so, and I'm pretty cynical. He warned against big government Republicanism and against a GOP that thought the federal government was the solution to every social ill."
"You just like him because of his campaign finance bill. You're obsessed."
"I do like the bill. It's the best we can do for now. And it would have been easier for Pence to just go along with Karl Rove and go after the 527s since those groups helped the Dems. I don't think Pence-Wynn will hurt the GOP, but clearly the bill doesn't hurt the Democrats as much as some other legislation might have.
"It's hard to believe -- at this stage it's almost impossible to believe, but it appears that Pence might even have some principles that trump his political interests."
"Yeah, go figure. Did you catch that part where Pence said, 'We will be behind the administration when it is conservative.' Then he obliquely criticized both the prescription drug benefit and No Child Left Behind. Not exactly the Magna Carta, but it's a lot more than anyone else has been willing to do."
Jason's attention was starting to wander.
"But Pence ignored one thing, and I can't blame him I guess for not talking about it. He said the GOP is committed to both liberty and tradition. But if you use the government to enforce traditional values then you have to restrict liberty, and if you let people be free, then they don't necessarily follow tradition. Since tradition implies religious faith, you end up with a conflict between liberty and religion."
"Yeah," Jason said, "I remember a member of Congress once said of Rupert Murdoch, 'he's not a conservative, he's a libertarian!'"
"Exactly. And liberals have been saying for the last 20 years that the Republican majority is about to come apart because it encompasses contradictory principles. But asking whether the GOP is ideologically coherent is the wrong question. In politics, you have to consider the alternative."
"You mean the Democrats. They've moderated themselves and are good on the war. They're becoming a real possibility for libertarians as the war drags on."
"Except the Dems have become the party of Europe. They want to transform the U.S. into France or Germany, two nations whose citizens worship the state. And they have chosen to become a European party just at the historical moment their model countries have fallen into irredeemable decline. One day the Dems will make peace with America, that is, with liberty, and they will come back. But that day seems a long way off."
"So we're stuck with big government Republicans?" Jason sighed.
"Say it this way: We're stuck with Mike Pence. He talked a lot about liberty this morning and barely mentioned the federal marriage amendment. Maybe he'll turn out to be good enough for us and better than that for the country. At least we can hope so."
"Sounds like you're going to write that op-ed valentine..."
"I think we just did."
"Oh," he said.