Can GOP Learn to Live With Libertarianism?

"If Mr. Paul wants to be taken seriously he needs to do more than pull political stunts that fire up impressionable libertarian kids in their college dorms.”

-- Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaking on the Senate floor, quoting a Wall Street Journal editorial attacking Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

After four foul months, Republicans finally had a couple of good weeks.

President Obama and his team botched the effort to prevent automatic decreases to automatic increases in spending. Voters rejected his doom saying and the president swiftly reversed course to -- for now at least -- get to work on a larger budget deal.

With his approval numbers sinking, the president is now looking to do a deal on debt, taxes and spending that will get him and the federal government through next year’s elections when voters will have another chance to break the deadlock in Washington.

In the simplest terms, the government will probably need to borrow about $1.5 trillion to make it to next fall. Republicans want that borrowing offset with reductions to current and future spending. The president wants it offset with increases to current and future taxes.

Whether the fight over near-term borrowing results in major reforms, more window dressing, continual careening from crisis to crisis or an actual government shutdown depends mostly on whether Obama wants to stay engaged and if he’s ready to start leading Democrats on entitlement changes.

The weeks to come will tell us whether he’s actually reconsidered his scorched-earth approach to the first half of his second term or if this is just an operational pause to quiet moderate critics before the next wave of attacks.

His choice will either be to use the rest of this month to inflict as much pain on the citizenry in order to prove his point about the need for more spending or he will have to dial down the suffering in order to keep Republicans at the bargaining table.

He’s not going to be able to force a crisis just by keeping school kids out of the White House and making dire warnings about future problems. He will really have to bring the pain in the weeks before the next stopgap spending package is due on March 27 if he’s serious about breaking the back of his GOP adversaries.

If his administration flinches on making things as bad as possible, it will be a major retreat and pave the way for a Republican victory on spending levels for the next six months.

Democrats will get another try for higher taxes and higher spending, but if Obama’s dire warnings about the consequences of even small reductions don’t pan out he will not be able to hit the scare button again, leaving the blue team at a disadvantage.

We’ll know soon if this is just Obama checking the “outreach” box before getting back to war or if this is the start of something bigger. Today, though, Republicans can be glad that they won this round and prepare for the next one.

But the best moment for Republicans after a truly rotten run following their November defeat came when Sen. Rand Paul showed the country that Republican obstructionism could be more than just a political game.

For the past two years, Republicans have been playing the role of the killjoy, foils to the president’s calls for more, more, more.

The central message from the GOP in 2012 seemed to be that it was time for America to take its medicine. Mitt Romney ran as a reassuring doctor giving a patient grim news, with a running mate who seemed like the specialist brought in for a consultation. This is going to be bad, they said, but it’s the only way to survive.

Americans know it’s bad. They know that their country is in trouble and has been for some time. They understand that huge debts, a lame economy and a corroded culture are not a sustainable mix. They fear that it may be too late to reverse or, worse, that it’s just plain irreversible. Dr. Romney and Dr. Ryan may have matched the national mood, but couldn’t compete as the candidates of necessary suffering.

House Republicans have done a manful job of restraining the president’s agenda, but have continued to reinforce their party’s brand as the party of no.

So Obama gets to be the ultimate yes man.

Everybody ought to have sex with and marry anybody they want! Yes! And free birth control! Yes! Everybody ought to get free college degrees! Yes! Subsidized green jobs! Yes! Free daycare! Yes!

And Obama is able to say that everyone would have all of these wonderful things if Republicans weren’t such a bunch of grumpy old (white) men. Republicans defend themselves by saying that Obama is right, but that they have good reasons for denying the public these things.

The GOP has become the party of “No, but…”

Republicans would like to believe that they can reverse their electoral fortunes by finally saying yes to an amnesty for illegal immigrants -- that by finally giving in to Obama on this point, Hispanics will suddenly warm to the GOP. Addressing illegal immigration may stop the damage with Hispanics, but it will take more than that to revive the party.

What Republicans need is a way to talk to voters under the age of 30. While the president didn’t repeat his historically high numbers with young voters the last time around, getting 60 percent of one-fifth of the electorate is pretty remarkable.

Paul offered those voters something with his filibuster this week, and made the president look like the grumpy old man. The look on Sen. Dick Durbin’s face at the end of Paul’s oration said it all. Democrats, who pride themselves on being the party of civil liberties, had been embarrassed on the subject by the GOP.

Paul got the president to rein in his attorney general’s claim of executive authority to kill American citizens on American soil without trial. At a moment when Americans, especially liberals and young voters, are growing increasingly uneasy with Obama’s drone wars and kill lists, Paul forced Obama to yield.

And only one Democrat, Ron Wyden of Oregon, was willing to stand with Paul. The rest of the blue team yielded the floor on an issue that would have been right up their alley just a few years ago.

It was captivating, sincere and successful, even if it was, by Paul’s own admission, an attention-seeking stunt.

The next day, though, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham arrived, like parents who discovered a raucous party had been going on while they were away and scolded Paul. McCain and Graham had been at dinner with the drone warrior president while Paul was filibustering and they did not at all like what he had been up to.

Rather than do what other moderates and hawks had done and let Paul have his moment whilst gently reminding their constituents that killing bad guys was very important, McCain and Graham mocked and derided Paul and his supporters.

It was stunningly bad politics. McCain and Graham may pride themselves on being tough-minded realists when it comes to the war on militant Islamists, but to sneer at “libertarian kids” and mock Paul after his principled stand won’t get them anywhere in their goals of keeping the U.S. on a war footing.

Instead, it just told some of those folks who were intrigued by Paul’s stand that the Republican Party was not interested in having their support. A Republican captivated the country by doing something other than losing a fight with Obama, and McCain and Graham tried to undo it.

If the GOP is going to make it, it will need to attract, absorb and channel the growing energy of libertarianism, not just be foils for Barack Obama and his party of yes.

And Now, A Word From Charles

“Gitmo was precisely invented as a way to have a site under which we could receive information over time.  The minute he arrives in New York on trial and is lawyered up we will learn nothing.”  

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier”

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET  at