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Does the rise of Rand Paul mean that social conservatism is dead?
Republicans are increasingly picking the values of Galt's Gulch over the Bible Belt
RIP social conservatism?
RIP social conservatism? Alex Wong/Getty Images
G

oodbye Pat Robertson, hello Ayn Rand. That seems to be the message from CPAC and the Republican National Committee's new "autopsy" report on its recent election woes.

"What I did see at CPAC," said George Will on ABC's This Week, "was the rise of the libertarian strand of Republicanism, which has an effect on foreign policy, that is a pullback from nation building and other kind of ambitions abroad that they never countenance from government at home, and a sense of live and let live with subjects such as decriminalization of certain drugs and gay marriage."

Will isn't alone. Part of the reason that Rand Paul won the CPAC straw poll was that half of the voters were between the ages of 18 and 25. Young people, like the 20-year-old CPAC attendee who talked to U.S. News & World Report, tend to classify "exhibition booths on abortion and traditional families" as "kind of intimidating."

Michael Moynihan of The Daily Beast sees a battle brewing — with the GOP establishment increasingly acknowledging the concerns of the formerly fringe libertarians:

One can debate how representative CPAC is of the conservative movement as a whole, but the libertarian and social conservative wings of the party are eyeing each other warily, with the traditionalists reacting as if they are surrounded. The moderator of Friday's abortion panel framed the debate as one of states' rights (which is how Paul approaches both the abortion and gay marriage issues), finding it necessary to highlight those areas on which "conservatives and libertarians can agree." [The Daily Beast]

The influence of social conservatives certainly looks like it's on the wane. Only about a decade ago was George W. Bush championing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. When Sen. Rob Portman announced his support of gay marriage last week, the response from the GOP brass was... crickets. The RNC's autopsy report, according to The Washington Post, implored Republicans to change their tone "on certain social issues to win over younger voters and reach out to gay Americans." That's a far cry from 2004, when even then-Senate candidate Barack Obama was declaring that "marriage is between a man and a woman." Now, as Slate's David Weigel notes, many conservatives believe that CPAC organizers left questions about gay marriage off the straw poll in fear that the crowd "would have voted in favor of gay marriage."

The libertarian faction of the Republican Party has been around for awhile, of course. The political landscape that Rand Paul is inheriting, however, is far different than the one his father retired Congressman Ron Paul had to deal with, as James Antle of The Guardian points out:

Paul isn't alone. Not only does he have allies in the Senate like Cruz of Texas and Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, another Tea Party darling, but there is now a cadre of libertarian-leaning Republicans in the House of Representatives: Justin Amash (Michigan), Kerry Bentivolio (Michigan), Thomas Massie (Kentucky), Raúl Labrador (Idaho), and Tom McClintock (California) to name a few.

There are now thousands of libertarian activists working within the Republican Party, especially through organizations spawned by Rand Paul's father, Ron, who ran for president in 1988, 2008 and 2012... The Pauls' message is even starting to gain traction among members of more established fiscal conservative groups, like FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth. [The Guardian]

Steve Kornacki at Salon theorizes that Rand Paul is clearly "interested in running for president in 2016, and could conceivably win caucuses and primaries — something his father never once did in two runs for the GOP nomination." If Rand Paul does win the nomination — however premature such a speculation seems at this point — it would be hard to see it as anything but the end of social conservatism as the dominant force in the GOP. 

Keith Wagstaff is a staff writer at TheWeek.com covering politics and current events. He has previously written for such publications as TIME, Details, VICE, and the Village Voice.

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