Libertarian Republicans and Liberal Democrats: Marriage or 1-Night Stand?

Despite a sudden and strong alliance over opposition to war in Syria, the two groups have little else in common and no one to bring them together.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The popular uprising against potential military intervention in Syria has scrambled Washington’s typical left-right politics. Just consider some scenes around the capital this week.

Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., a cochairman of the Progressive Caucus, walked past an antiwar protest and got heckled for supporting air strikes, while Tea Party Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, R-Mich., earned cheers for his opposition. Christopher Preble of the noninterventionist Cato Institute visited the usually hawkish Heritage Foundation and was shocked to hear his rival think-tankers “basically saying exactly what I would have said.” And Democratic firebrand Alan Grayson of Florida teamed with House Republican colleagues to organize a guerrilla whipping operation.

“I can’t remember when MoveOn and FreedomWorks were on the same side of anything,” said Stephen Miles of the Win Without War coalition.

It’s such a novel moment for Washington that some speculate we may finally be seeing the mythical populist coalition between anti-interventionist libertarians on the right and antiwar civil libertarians on the left that former Rep. Ron Paul and Ralph Nader have dreamed about for years. “I think it’s totally real,” said Becky Bond, the political director of Credo Mobile, one of the first liberal voices to oppose intervention in Syria. “As someone who was doing this kind of work in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, this feels very different. It’s a real left-right coalition.”

Indeed, Syria has tilted the political landscape 90 degrees, turning the familiar partisan divide into a vertical split between the leadership in both parties, which favors military intervention, and the parties’ anti-interventionist grassroots bases. And it comes on the heels of a revival of “libertarian populism” on the right, alarm over civil liberties on the left, and a general war weariness among Americans of all stripes.

The Tea Party has been nearly unanimous in its opposition to strikes against Syria, and Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of FreedomWorks, a Tea Party group, thinks it’s more than just knee-jerk opposition to Obama. “It’s a shift; it’s a realignment,” Kibbe said. On issues such as civil liberties, electronic surveillance, drones, and criminal-justice reform, “there’s absolutely a convergence. We’re building a new coalition.”

“You’re seeing coming to fruition a lot of the groundwork that was laid over several years,” Miles said. It started in Iraq, with antiwar House Republicans such as Paul and North Carolina’s Walter Jones, he said, and has materialized more recently in bipartisan legislation to trim defense spending.

One lawmaker who has tapped into that coalition is freshman Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, a Republican who has introduced bills with Democrats to legalize industrial hemp production and end mandatory minimum sentences. He told National Journal that the grassroots opposition to Syria was unlike anything he’s seen since the populist furor over the bank bailouts in 2009. And it may be just the tip of the iceberg. “It’s certainly not a one-off,” Massie said. “I think there are a lot of opportunities going forward.”

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Alex Seitz-Wald is a reporter for National Journal

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