Matt Welch [reason.com] : Republican old guard cannot accept Tea Party or Libertarian Presidential candidates and will lose their support in the election


Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. The Republican race continues. The debate’s ongoing. And we’ve seen some fireworks. Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul have landed some blows onto Rick Perry’s nose. Here’s a example of a couple of those.

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WOLF BLITZER: Congressman Paul, you’re from Texas. Does your governor deserve all that credit?

RON PAUL: Not quite. I’m a taxpayer there. My taxes have gone up. Our taxes have doubled since he’s been in office. Our debt–our spending has gone up double. Our debt has gone up nearly triple. So no. And 170,000 of the jobs were government jobs. So I would put a little damper on this, but I don’t want to offend the governor, ’cause he might raise my taxes or something.

BLITZER: Go–alright. Hold on one second. First, Congresswoman Bachmann, then Senator Santorum.

MICHELE BACHMANN: I just wanted to add that we cannot forget that in the midst of this executive order, there was a big drug company that made millions of dollars because of this mandate. We can’t deny that.

BLITZER: What are you suggesting?

BACHMANN: What I’m saying is that it’s wrong for a drug company–because the governor’s former chief of staff was the chief lobbyist for this drug company, the drug company gave thousands of dollars in political donations to the governor. And this is just flat out wrong.

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JAY: Well, that, in my opinion, leaves the Republican Party at somewhat of an impasse. The Tea Party and Libertarian right has hammered Rick Perry. It’s very hard to see how that segment of the party could go along and campaign for a Mitt Romney. So where does that leave things? Now joining us to help us deconstruct the race is Matt Welch. Matt is the editor-in-chief of the libertarian magazine Reason magazine. Thanks for joining us again, Matt.

MATT WELCH, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, REASON MAGAZINE: Thanks for having me back.

JAY: Okay. So what’s your take on what I said? And are they at an impasse? And what do you think’s happening here?

WELCH: We’re seeing the battle for the kind of soul of the Republican Party in a way that we haven’t seen maybe in a generation. And that’s kind of fascinating for us non-Republicans to watch it unfold, even if a bit morbidly fascinating. Mitt Romney, you’re right, no one, really, in their right mind is passionate about Mitt Romney, with the possible exception of his family. But he is serving the same role that we saw John Kerry serve for Democrats in 2004: we think this tall, handsome guy from Massachusetts has a presentable enough face to win against a presumably unpopular president, period. And so all of the flip-flops, all of the not standing for any particular principle and spending all of this debate time weaseling out of this or that past statement, that’s okay, because he seems less scary than Rick Perry and then less crazy as Ron Paul–and now I’m talking about a Republican establishment point of view more than I am my own. Rick Perry, it’s unclear where he’s fitting in. I mean, he has a big support among the populist right, which has overlap with but is not the same as the Tea Party right or the Libertarian, wherever the Libertarians belong on any spectrum, and he is getting hammered. He’s this year’s frontrunner right now. So was Rudy Giuliani four years ago, and he kind of dissolved pretty quickly. Then you have Ron Paul, who’s running again and is much stronger than he was before. And all of the movement around him and the ideas that he’s been talking about had had much more purchase in the Republican Party, and especially among the Tea Party and grassroots. And at the same time, he is completely unpalatable to the Republican establishment in many ways. So it’s still early. We don’t know where this tension’s going to play out.

JAY: I mean, it’s hard to see how the Republican establishment can do anything but try to marginalize Ron Paul, given his foreign policy positions. The–he–you know, he–in all the debates, he keeps coming back to this issue of if you would just have massive cuts to military expenditure, and he talks about–he’s–I don’t know if he’s done it during the debates, but he often talks about American imperialism, American empire. He wants to take on the military-industrial complex. I mean, this stuff is–this cannot be acceptable to the Republican leadership. But what do they do with it? It has real popularity within the party.

WELCH: Well, it’s interesting to note, I think it was yesterday that a group of Republicans, prominent Republicans, sent a letter to Ben Bernanke, our Federal Reserve chair, imploring him not to do a new round of quantitative easing. The Federal Reserve was not a hotbed of political action or attitudes about that in the country. It is now, because of Ron Paul and the movement that’s grown up around him. He has changed the debate. There was a period, not in the previous GOP presidential debate but the one before, where basically Ron Paul was sitting there and taking everybody else’s foreign policy views–it was almost as if he was moderating. [incompr.] we see Republicans, they are not in his camp, but they are a lot more skeptical about the Libya intervention, about our continued presence in Afghanistan, and about a number of things than they have been in a long time. But I think you’re right: if push came to shove, there is an establishment in Washington and within the Republican Party–and there’s a sort of folkway tradition of muscular militarism that finds him appalling. And if it came down to him being in the final two, I think the guns that they would bring out for him would be very interesting. But let’s remember this, too: the Republican establishment went all guns out for his son, Rand Paul, in Kentucky against Mitch McConnell, who runs Kentucky and the Republican Party, and they lost. They brought out Dick Cheney and everybody else and said Randy Paul is a dangerous passivist and known drug user or whatever the hell. None of it stuck, and he won a Tea Party-influenced victory. So it’s going to be very–.

JAY: And then Karl Rove did go ahead and raise money for Rand Paul when it came to the actual election.

WELCH: Sure. You know, they’re not going to turn their back on a winner. One of the–an ongoing dance that the Republican Party has to make, and it’s very uncomfortable and awkward for almost everybody involved, is what to do with the fact that their grassroots is not feeling particularly Republican anymore. [incompr.] gone to a lot of Tea Party-flavored rallies in Washington, DC, and we always ask people, like, so, do you consider yourself Democrat, and you don’t really see many hands; Republican, and you see a few; and you say independent [incompr.] “Yeah!” Everyone suddenly is [incompr.] themselves. They use independence as a weapon. And even if they are right-of-center in most traditional descriptions, they are not–they’re not doing the bidding of the Republican Party. And so the Republican Party suddenly has to take them seriously in a way that Barack Obama still doesn’t have to take parts of his own base seriously.

JAY: So what happens? I mean, I think it’s safe to assume, based on past history, the Republican leadership and the media will probably be successful in marginalizing Ron Paul enough that he doesn’t make the final two, or even if he did, he ain’t the final one. But–and then Michelle Bachmann and the Tea Party section of this, they’re going to be so unenthusiastic about Mitt Romney. But I think they’re going to be–they seem to be pretty unenthusiastic about Rick Perry, too. So if between Paul-type forces and Bachmann-type forces is the fire in the belly of the Republican Party, and they lose that, then what have they got?

WELCH: I think that they lose. If I–you know, it’s a mug’s game, and we’re playing it a little bit of trying to project in presidential politics, especially right now, ’cause we’re living through really dynamic and fluid times. That said, all of the energy, not just in the Republican Party or the Tea Party, but just American political energy, has been very, very strongly kind of populistically antigovernment or restraining the growth of government. If the Republicans, after three years of this–which has been obvious, and even among non-activists, just American public opinion–if after all of this, all the signals showing them the same thing, they offer up some lukewarm Mitt Romney type, they’re not going to tap into that energy, and I would imagine you need that energy to win. And not only that, let’s remember that the Ron Paul voters, of which now there’s a lot more than there used to be, they’re not portable. Only 38 percent of people who voted for Ron Paul in 2008 primary season ended up voting for John McCain. That’s an astonishing number. So what happens then? And does Ron Paul think about, if he doesn’t make a final two, or even the final one, does he think about an independent run? ‘Cause let’s remember he’s resigned–or he’s given up the idea of running further for Congress. So I think that’s definitely in the mix.

JAY: Now, on the Democratic side, you have a lot of people who were progressive in the Democratic Party who, you know, are very, very critical of Obama’s–the way–I know the right thinks Obama’s been a left-wing president, but the left in the Democratic Party think quite the opposite. You know. But many of them probably will hold their nose and support Obama anyway because they see the Republican alternative as so unacceptable. Is that possible dynamic in the Republican Party, that they will see another term of Obama so unacceptable that they would support a Romney or a Perry anyway, even, and hold their nose?

WELCH: You know what? I don’t think so. I think because–one reason is people have looked at the tactics of the Tea Party [incompr.] Nick Gillespie and I, who wrote a–just wrote a book called The Declaration of Independence, which I have lying around here, we talk about what the left can learn from the Tea Party, even if they totally hate the Tea Party, and then compare the Howard Dean antiwar movement of 2003 and 2004 to the Tea Party. The Dean movement got domesticated. He became chair of the party, they became part of a MoveOn.org superstructure, and as a result we have Nobel Prize-winning president who doesn’t give a rat’s patootie about the antiwar left, and we don’t really have a strong antiwar left on the streets in this country anymore, unfortunately. I argue that that is partly because they allowed themselves to be domesticated. I don’t think that current Tea Party activists and grassroots right-of-center types, especially those who care about limiting government, which is something that George W. Bush did nothing of–he has a terrible track record in sort of governing the Republicans in Congress–they’re not going to so easily forget that memory of just shameful governance over the past ten years. So I can’t see them rallying around Romney just to hold their nose and beat Obama. And I wish that we would see more single-issue left-of-center people, including people who have a lot of overlap with our libertarian universe on things like executive power and the drug war, start elevating their issues above their party and say, if you’re going to continue being as bad or worse on the drug war as George W. Bush, which Barack Obama has been, you are not going to get my support, or we’re going to make your life uncomfortable in ways you’re going to have to deal with. I think that’s the future of actually getting things done on individual policies: not backing politicians, but making them sweat.

JAY: And as you say, there’s quite a bit of crossover with a lot of the libertarians and a lot of the left on many of these kinds of issues.

WELCH: Yeah. And what would be very interesting, although it’s not at this point likely (but who knows): what happens if we’re in a choice between a Barack Obama and a Ron Paul? Right? People who’ve for years been talking about the drug war, have been talking about the racism of–built into the drug war and all kinds of inequities, and who are anti-interventionists, they’re going to be faced with a Republican who is much better on all of those issues than Barack Obama has been. And so then it’s a question of where are your principles, which ones do you elevate, and at what point are you more of a member of a tribe.

JAY: Well, I guess part of the problem, though, is on domestic policies and domestic economics. The liberal left in the Democratic party can’t agree with Ron Paul on anything domestic economically, even though there’s a lot of agreement on civil liberties and militarism.

WELCH: Very little, let’s say. But there are also kind of a growing awareness of things like what the Institute for Justice does, the Libertarian legal group that basically helps people in the inner city fight back against onerous sort of regulatory regimes that prevents them from starting their own businesses. There–on urban policy especially, and on education policy, too, there is a lot more of that crossover happening right now. And you also have people like my old friend Bob Scheer, who says, hey, look, you know, you can have your Department of Energy, you know, cut that and cut the Department of Education, if you in turn give me–you know, cut the military-industrial complex in half or by two-thirds. There’s going to be more of that kind of deal-making. That’s necessary, because right now we’re out of money. We’re going to have to make choices that are uncomfortable to all of us, because every projection projects pain, as [incompr.] taught us. So there’s going to have to be unusual steps and coalitions formed in the future and just really difficult choices. And I think some of those choices are going to include things like do you want the entitlement or do you want the safety net, because they’re two different things. And there’s going to be more conversations that acknowledge that. And maybe there’ll be less of a yawning chasm. But essentially–.

JAY: Explain to me one thing about libertarian outlook. I understand the idea of smaller government and I understand the idea of personal liberty. I don’t actually understand why–and maybe not all libertarians do, but why are libertarians so against taxing the upper one or two percentile? That–I don’t get that.

WELCH: There’s a couple of different strains of it. I’ll represent mine as I don’t wake up worrying that a rich person’s going to pay more tax. It’s more of a critique of, okay, in 2000, the federal government was too–you know, spent $2 trillion; 2008, $3 trillion; and now it’s around $4 trillion. We’re just exploding the size and growth of government. That in itself is the problem, not the tax revenue that’s feeding it. And so that–.

JAY: Well, then, why not come out with a position saying, okay, tax the upper two percentile, but all of it has to go to pay down debt?

WELCH: Well, for one thing, because we know that’s not going to happen. We just got in the polling business to try to get sort of nonpartisan views on things, and we asked people–they’re not our people; they’re just people–if we increase taxes in the near future, which most people think is going to happen, do you–how do you think the government’s going to spend it? And 62 percent said, we think they’ll spend it on new programs. I mean, in the good times, on the state level, between 2002 and 2007, state governments on average boosted spending by 80 percent. There wasn’t any new demand for their services, ’cause we were doing okay on the state level, really. But what happens when governments are flush is that they spend your money. And there’s an insight of that, not just libertarian, but sort of the overall conservative critique. All of that’s–. Yeah, go ahead.

JAY: Yeah, I mean, you could easily go pass the legislation that says that, you know, this tax–you could have a special tax to pay down the debt; it all comes from the upper two or three percentile.

WELCH: [crosstalk] I mean, there’s been a lot of–there’s been a lot of–Gramm-Rudman was in the ’80s. You know, there’s been lot of pay-as-you-go rules and a lot of things that are [incompr.] But there’s even right now of lot of enthusiasm (which I do not share) among the Tea Party right of, well, hey, let’s get a balanced budget amendment. I view almost all that as gimmickry. I think what–if you truly believe–and I do, and not everyone does, I totally recognize that–if you think that the size and growth in government is a problem not just because we can’t afford it but because it also inhibits freedom, it makes it more difficult for Third World farmers to sell us stuff, you know, then what you need to do is actually cut government. Its fiddling with taxes, one way or the other, is not your priority. Our–Nick Gillespie, my co-author, came up with this thing called the 19 percent solution, which basically has said historically we have spent 19 percent of GDP on the federal government. So let’s keep taxes at a level that can fund that, and then let’s make the cuts necessary to the growth of things in the government and kind of–and let’s keep that enshrined more in law. I think it doable, but it requires a political will and consensus that isn’t there right now.

JAY: Okay. But I want to corner you on this. So you wouldn’t be opposed to a tax on the top percentile if it all went to pay down the debt?

WELCH: No. I mean, but, like, if it was just to pay down the debt and not to cut the size of government, then I would be opposed. In my view, the problem is the size of government more than it is the size of debt. The size of debt is also a terrible, looming problem, and it’s consuming an ever-greater portion of what we’re dealing with, but we have to show–politicians will always be able to show willingness to raise taxes or tweak the tax code in ways that favor their friends or favor [incompr.] hurt politically marginal groups of any variety, whether they’re poor or rich. But they are–it’s rare that they show any willingness to cut their own privileges and their own size of government. So until I see any proof that that’s on the table–and right now it really isn’t, with the–with one very important exception of the deficit deal that was made, which has triggered cuts in the military, which is, I think, a phenomenally underappreciated and an interesting new thing. Generally speaking, politicians are not willing to make those cuts. And so until they demonstrate that, I don’t trust them with tax money. It’s not about, oh, you know, I’m worried that if I ever made $200,000 a year I would pay a lot in taxes; it’s more that I just don’t trust politicians to ever cut government, and until they show that kind of demonstration, I’m not very interested in hearing about, you know, let’s just jack up the money on these particular people. I am interested, though, in what can we do to make the Tax Code–.

JAY: But to be consistent, then, you’d have to say the same thing: you’re not–you can’t be very interested in cutting Social Security or reforms in Medicare and Medicaid, because that would be tinkering, too. If you’re not dealing with the size of government, we shouldn’t be cutting social programs either, then, if the logic is consistent.

WELCH: I’m not sure I totally follow you there. I mean, I see taxing as a different category than, you know, benefits and what the government has promised to people, right? So, I mean, it’s–the word tinkering here is not necessarily [crosstalk]

JAY: Well, it’s just that in the name of–it’s just that in the name of reducing debt, we’re told we have to have these major cuts in social programs. So if you’re saying the real issue’s the size of government, then the issue shouldn’t be cutting those programs either, unless you’re also going to accept, if you’re going to tinker, then tinker at the top two percentile. Why only tinker with the social programs?

WELCH: [incompr.] I think that we agree. You know, I–or welfare reform, which a lot of people, including me at the time, were against, I think it’s had some beneficial side effects. I think it’s also had some bad side effects in ways that are too complicated to get into. But I have never been interested in attacking first social welfare of the poor if we’re not going after corporate welfare of the rich first, because that demonstrates that you’re serious about the concept of welfare and stopping the cycle of dependency. We have seen both parties you know, repeatedly be willing to hand out welfare to rich people and to corporations. And because of that, I do not trust anybody, really, with a few exceptions, of being serious when they say, oh, we want to get rid of these wasteful–you know, dumping on the cycle of dependency. No. I think you need–if you want to demonstrate your seriousness–. Here’s how Rand Paul puts it, and I think he’s right. I think he’s an interesting politician for it. He tells all of his Republican friends, you are going to have to cut military spending, period, and until you show that you’re willing to, you are not serious. And he tells his Democratic friends, you are going to have have to touch entitlements–same way, same thing. Both sides are going to have to deal with that. Those are the main drivers in the budget, and especially in the projected budgets. And if we don’t go after them and some serious, meaningful way, this is all handwaving and we’re going to be paying 100 percent of our budget on debt service in, you know, 25 years.

JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Matt.

WELCH: Thanks, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Matt Welch

Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason magazine. Welch's work has appeared in The Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, Los Angeles Daily News, Orange County Register, LA Weekly, ESPN.com, Salon.com, Wired, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Daily Star of Beirut, and dozens of other publications.