Ever since Senator Rand Paul ended his long-suffering presidential campaign, the liberty wing of American conservatism has been in flux.
In this eccentric election year, with its squashed prognostications and populist outrages, what, exactly, are libertarians supposed to do now? Some have responded by backing Donald Trump, while others are throwing their support behind Ted Cruz. A few are flirting with Marco Rubio and many more are planning to stay home.
For those who will head to the polls on primary day, the alternatives to Paul hang in the air like malodorous fruit on the Republican Party’s gnarled presidential tree. To choose, libertarians will have to wrangle with three frontrunners, each of whom has an eminent defect. I would describe our quandary this way: Donald Trump is unfit to be president, Ted Cruz will say anything to be president, and Marco Rubio would do the wrong things as president.
The easiest of those statements to prove is the one about Trump. The magnate of New York’s most worthless boondoggles isn’t a serious lawmaker, or even a populist reformer in the mold of Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan. He’s a hyper-reactive toddler in cufflinks, saying whatever it takes to win the Republican nomination and bawling every time he encounters a setback. The man who scapegoats illegal immigrants while using them to build his garish edifices, who jokes about women menstruating and hits on his own daughter, has no business joining the pantheon of Lincoln and Reagan. Libertarianism would be debased were it to be associated with Trump.
On the other hand, there is some overlap between Trump’s beliefs and those of liberty conservatives, especially on foreign policy. It’s difficult not to cheer when Trump trashes the Iraq war and the Libya intervention, even as he simultaneously pledges to steal Middle Eastern oil and revive torture. Also, consider that the ludicrousness of a Trump Oval Office might convince Congress to rein in executive power, a goal of libertarians everywhere.
Then there’s Ted Cruz. He’s a difficult man to trust. Cruz has committed more U-turns than a teenage driver with a malfunctioning GPS, including on issues dear to libertarians like criminal justice reform and clemency for Edward Snowden. He also has a penchant for staged and demagogic PR stunts, like when he melodramatically left a room of Syrian Christians because they disapproved of his gushing over Israel, or when he shut down the federal government, bringing no benefit to his party but maximal attention to himself.
And yet, Cruz is also the most ideologically libertarian candidate left in the race. Elected under the tea party banner, he’s sworn off toppling more Middle Eastern dictators and assailed “Washington neocons.” He wants to audit the Pentagon and reduce military waste, even as he calls for a massive buildup of the armed forces. His victorious stand against the ethanol mandate was one of the most glorious moments in the history of the Iowa caucuses. He’s solid on Obamacare and entitlements.
Finally, there’s Marco Rubio, who simply doesn’t cotton to this whole liberty thing. A Rubio nomination would validate the establishment and effectively flush the last seven years of tea party activism down the memory hole. Republicans would be stuck with a candidate who’s only the most perfunctory sort of fiscal conservative, who would power down the marijuana experiments in our laboratories of democracy and implement the most irresponsible foreign policy I’ve ever seen promulgated by a national candidate. Unlike Cruz, when Rubio says he’ll kill the Iran deal, you believe him—literally an isolationist policy, this would cut America off not just from Iran and Russia, but most of Europe. That alone is reason enough to oppose the Florida senator.
Nevertheless, polls have shown Rubio has a better chance against Hillary Clinton than any other Republican contender. The Florida senator, fresh and uplifting, may be the political talent of his generation, with a rhetorical style that recalls a little of that old Reaganesque national pride. And Rubio’s biggest weakness among conservatives, his audacious sanity on immigration, is viewed as a strength by many libertarians.
The takeaway from all this is that liberty conservatives who vote Republican this year will be choosing the worst candidate except for all the others. And with Donald Trump having shifted into high gear after blowing out the last three GOP contests, their decisions may not make much of a difference anyways. If I sound cynical, that’s because I am.