Rand Paul and the limits of Facebook Generation “conservatism”

Anyone who doubts that Rand Paul is a force to be reckoned with in the Republican Party should watch his CPAC speech and then think again. But anyone who believes that Paul can lead the Republican Party to victory should engage in similar reflection.

Since the days of Reagan, the Party has stood, famously, on the three-legged stool of free-market conservatism, strong national defense conservatism, and social conservatism. Lately, to be sure, this formula hasn’t produced success in presidential races. But will Republicans flourish if they saw off two of the stool’s three legs?

This is what Rand Paul would do. His “war on drones” (or war on behalf of the Bill of Rights, as he self-righteously would have it) is really an assault on the successful war on terrorism the U.S. has waged for the past 11 years. This reflects his even broader quarrel with strong national defense conservatism.

Paul gave this away (again) in his CPAC speech when he said that, once upon a time, Barack Obama respected civil liberties. Paul was referring to the days before Obama had the awesome primary responsibility for protecting Americans from terrorism and jihad. In those days, the Senator from Illinois could afford to be a persistent leftist critic of the war on terror.

By embracing that Barack Obama, Paul confirms that he is his father’s son when it comes to national security. Thus, one leg of Reagan conservatism is severed.

The social conservative leg fares no better. Paul told CPAC that the new Republican Party he contemplates will “embrace liberty in the economic and personal sphere.” The substantial portion of the Republican base that rejects hard-core libertarianism in the social sphere will no longer have a home in the party Paul aspires to lead.

With whom does Paul propose to replace social conservative and national security oriented conservatives? That’s easy — he will replace them with “the Facebook Generation.” Its members will flock to Paul, like children to the pied piper, because, says Paul, they “can detect falseness and hypocrisy a mile away.” Maybe the Wall Street Journal and John McCain were onto something after all.

Paul does not appear bothered by the fact that these unerring detectors of B.S. have twice voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama. Presumably, Paul attributes this to Obama’s opponents (as he said, we don’t have to name names).

But Paul has indulged in a fallacy. The Facebook Generation’s alleged “leave us alone” attitude towards government can explain why its members did not embrace (okay, let’s name names) John McCain. It can conceivably explain why they did not embrace Mitt Romney. But it cannot explain the enthusiasm of the Facebook Generation for Barack Obama, particularly after Obama had spent four years demonstrating that he has no intention of letting anyone alone.

Portions of the Facebook Generation may talk a good self-reliance game. But the voting pattern of this cohort as a whole isn’t promising. Instead, it suggests that they like “free stuff” at least as much as their parents do.

For me, the idea that a Paulist Republican Party could attract enough young voters to offset the destruction of its traditional stool is laughable. Paul’s blueprint would make for a great Third Party, but comes nowhere close to charting the course for a Republican resurgence.

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