AUG. 12, 2016 — Libertarianism has long been treated as a fringe ideology obsessed with the gold standard, legalization of hard drugs and “Atlas Shrugged.” Ron Paul, who ran for president in the 2012 GOP primaries, was the archetype, calling for an end to Social Security and the Federal Reserve. But when Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson extols fiscal responsibility and social tolerance, he brings to mind a different political tradition: that of moderate Republicans.
There was a time, not so long ago, when they dominated the GOP. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush sprang from this wing of the party. So, arguably, did George W. Bush, along with nominees such as Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney.
But the party has moved steadily to the right recently. Rank-and-file GOP voters grew significantly more conservative in the first decade of this century. It’s a measure of how conservative House Republicans have become that Speaker Paul Ryan, once a tea party hero, is now viewed with distrust by many in his caucus.
That growing tilt leaves an electoral opening for a candidate who thinks the government shouldn’t meddle too much in either markets or morals. Hillary Clinton isn’t interested in occupying it. So Johnson, who is averaging 9 percent support in the RealClearPolitics average of four-way polls that include him and Green Party nominee Jill Stein, has that niche to himself.
In Kansas, long solidly Republican, moderates are rebounding, thanks to the unpopularity of conservative Gov. Sam Brownback. In the Aug. 2 legislative primary, moderates defeated incumbent Brownback allies in more than a dozen races. U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a tea party stalwart, also got evicted.
Since 2012, the share of Republicans who say they are economically and socially conservative has shrunk from 57 percent to 42 percent. But the national party’s message hasn’t caught up with that trend.
If Trump loses — and particularly if he loses big — moderates may find themselves taken more seriously in Congress and the party. Many Republicans are probably already wondering how much brighter their electoral prospects would be with, say, John Kasich of Ohio atop the ballot in November.
Victories by senators who have clashed with Trump — such as Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Rob Portman of Ohio, as well as Kirk and McCain — would give them more influence on the GOP’s direction. A strong showing by Libertarian Johnson would encourage Republicans to adopt at least some of his ideas. And voter frustration with gridlock may aid lawmakers who don’t treat compromise as a crime.
Pragmatic, centrist Republicans have largely vanished from the American political scene. But their absence leaves a vacuum that begs to be filled.