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CPAC's Conservative-Libertarian Split Could Be Hard To Bridge

Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky speaks at the Conservative Political Action Committee annual conference in National Harbor, Md., on Friday.
Susan Walsh
Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky speaks at the Conservative Political Action Committee annual conference in National Harbor, Md., on Friday.

If any two issues illustrate how difficult it could be for the part of the Republican Party represented by the social and national security conservatives to bridge their differences with libertarians, same-sex marriage and National Security Agency intelligence are good candidates

Discussions at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference got testy Friday, when libertarians defended positions out of synch with the more traditional stances that have defined the Republican Party for decades.

At a panel on privacy, for instance, centering on Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA's data gathering, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore dramatically held aloft a New York Post front page with photos of Snowden and Russian president Vladimir Putin under the headline "Comrades."

"Edward Snowden is a traitor and a coward," Gilmore said. "The fact is, Edward Snowden betrayed his trust."

Gilmore, who once served as a military intel officer, said Snowden seriously damaged U.S. intelligence efforts. He also accused political leaders who've used Snowden's disclosures to suggest that there's widespread surveillance of average citizens by the federal government of "demagoguery."

Responding to Gilmore, Bruce Fein, a libertarian lawyer who's been involved in a lawsuit against the federal government, said that he ignores the more rampant lawlessness which is "government violating the rule of law."

"All these examples of government lawlessness, total silence on Gov. Gilmore's side," Fein said. "And when the government becomes a lawbreaker, it invites every man and woman to become a law unto themselves."

If there was common ground, it wasn't much on display during this session. That debate also displayed the tricky territory Republicans are going to have to navigate if they are to find a compromise on this issue.

Gilmore represents a Republican establishment long defined by its hawkish stance on national-security matters. But the party's libertarian wing, represented by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, breaks from that tradition. It questions many of the national-security tenets establishment Republicans long have taken for granted.

Pulling these two sides together won't be easy as the edgy debate between Gilmore and Fein attested to.

No less difficult to smooth over is the social conservative-libertarian split over same-sex marriage.

At a panel discussion titled "Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Ever Get Along?" same-sex marriage dominated the conversation. But the answer seemed to be: not on this issue.

Both the pro and con sides on the same-sex marriage issue used religious liberty to defend their argument.

Using a more traditional argument, Matt Spalding, an official at Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian school in Michigan, said it's a violation of religious freedom for a state or the federal government to force anyone to recognize same-sex marriage.

"Even if we disagree, and we clearly do, we must have an agreement on religious liberty," Spalding said. "There's a profound, deep and moral and religious objection to redefining marriage. Giving that power to that state is a destruction of the very liberty we cherish."

Alexander McCobin, president of Students for Liberty, a libertarian group, didn't agree. He used a less common version of the religious liberty argument to state his case.

"The kind of religious liberty that has been infringed upon for decades has been the liberty of those whose religious practices support same-sex marriage," McCobin said. "The government has prohibited them from engaging in the religious practices that they want. This is the civil rights of the 21st century."

That was a sign of the generational split in the party. Many younger Republicans of the type who support libertarian ideology of individual freedom and are more tolerant of same-sex marriage were in the hall waiting for Paul to speak.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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