I thank my friend Reid Smith for his kind response to my recent op-ed on libertarians and Mitch McConnell. But I think he and some others are overstating what I’m arguing here, perhaps understandably because effective headlines are not nuanced.
I’m not saying McConnell is better on an issue-by-issue basis than his primary challenger, Matt Bevin. I don’t think that, in fact. I’m not even saying people should necessarily vote for McConnell over Bevin, though I’m not terribly impressed with the latter and think the former is the least bad of the big five GOP leaders in Congress. (Talk about damning with faint praise.)
With few exceptions, I’ve generally supported conservative primary challengers, even flawed ones, in the past and am inclined to do so again this year in Kentucky. Such primary challenges are a big part of the limited-government strategy I outlined in my book. And if I thought Bevin was a Rand Paul-caliber challenger, I wouldn’t have thought it worth the thought experiment involved in writing the piece.
All I’m trying to remind my comrades is that making the Republican Party a true small-government party requires two things: replacing big-government Republicans, which candidates like Bevin are striving to do, and changing other Republicans’ minds (or behavior in office).
McConnell is the member of the Republican leadership team who has been most swayed by Paul’s rise. After all, Paul beat his machine in the 2010 primary. McConnell later saw Thomas Massie, a Paul ally, pull off something similar at the House level.
Reid suggests that the moves McConnell has made in recognition of this new political reality are unprincipled. I’d remind him of an observation by Milton Friedman. “People have a great misconception in this way, they think the way you solve things is by electing the right people,” Friedman once said. “It’s nice to elect the right people, but that isn’t the way you solve things. The way you solve things is by making it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right things.”
It’s nice to envision a Senate filled with Rand Pauls. But the way you solve things is to have the Mitch McConnells and John Cornyns think it’s a “no-brainer” politically to stand with Rand on various issues.
That’s not an argument against conservative primary challenges. Those challenges can do both things: help us elect the right people and push the wrong people to do the right things. As recently as 2006, conservatives couldn’t unseat Republicans as liberal Arlen Specter or Lincoln Chafee in primaries. Now they can field serious challengers to McConnell and Orrin Hatch. Bevin may beat McConnell or he may make him better.
On the other hand, Hatch may well be the cautionary tale for what we’ll see from a safely re-nominated McConnell. I think growing the Senate trouble-making caucus beyond Paul, Ted Cruz, and Mike Lee is a good thing. But libertarians and small-government conservatives should at least be willing to entertain the following question: Is there any benefit we can derive from a Senate majority leader who takes Paul seriously, even if only out of political calculation, that we can’t get from a freshman trouble-maker?
That may not be a decisive case for libertarian nose-holding. But it’s not a nonexistent case.