Howard Dean to the White Courtesy Phone
The movement that formed around William Buckley some fifty years ago was a libertarian/traditionalist coalition. It included classical liberals, traditionalist conservatives, and many who accepted elements of both positions. The libertarians got support for free market economic policy, the traditionalists got support for anti-communist foreign policy, and the two factions agreed to disagree on domestic social policy and civil liberties. The overall package was closer to the policies of the Republican party than those of the Democratic party, so conservative political activity was mainly in and through the Republican party.
Libertarians still tend to identify with the Republican party. Save for historical reasons, it is hard to see why. The current administration, despite its free market rhetoric, has been no better--arguably worse--than its predecessor on economic issues. Its policy on public schooling, the largest governent run industry in the U.S., has been a push towards more central control, not less. Its support for free trade has been at best intermittant. Reductions in taxes have been matched by increases in government spending, increasing, not shrinking, the real size and cost of government. It has been strikingly bad on civil liberties. Its Supreme Court nominees have not been notably sympathetic to libertarian views of the law. Libertarians disagree among themselves on foreign policy, but many support a generally non-interventionist approach and so find themselves unhappy with the Iraq war.
The Democrats have problems too. While things have been looking up for them recently, their ideological coalition has been losing strength for decades, leaving them in danger of long term minority status.
The obvious solution to both sets of problems is for the Democrats to try to pull the libertarian faction out of the Republican party. How large that faction is is hard to judge, but it is clearly a lot larger than the vote of the Libertarian Party would suggest. The current administration's use of pro-market rhetoric suggests that it, at least, believes that a significant fraction of its base cares about such things. The conversion of a mere ten percent of current Republicans into Democrats would strikingly alter the current political balance.
How can the Democrats appeal to libertarian Republicans without alienating their own base? Support for school vouchers would meet the former requirement--but in a party where public school teachers make up one of the most powerful interest groups, it is unfortunately not a viable option.
I think I have an answer. In 2004, Montana went for Bush by a sizable margin. It also voted in medical marijuana, by an even larger margin. Legalizing medical marijuana is a policy popular with libertarians, acceptable to Democrats, and opposed by the current administration.
At the very least, prominent Democrats should come out in favor of the federal government respecting state medical marijuana laws, as it has so far refused to do. Better yet, let them propose a federal medical marijuana law. That will send a signal to a considerable number of voters that, at least on this issue, one of the parties is finally on their side. It would be a beginning.