Amid Struggle For 'Soul' Of GOP, Libertarians Take Limelight

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"There is no question that there is a civil war that is waging within the party."

That Republican conflict, political science professor David Cohen adds, isn't between just two sides, but among a number of factions, including libertarians.

One of the most public battles has involved national security and civil liberties. Leaks about the National Security Agency's surveillance programs raised alarms for libertarians about the government's reach.

On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that the NSA "has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008." The article and follow-up reports fuel the ongoing civil liberties debate. These leaks have helped push libertarian ideology into the limelight.

"I think it's really brought home many of the things that we've been talking about," says libertarian Rep. Justin Amash of Grand Rapids, Mich. "There's a real concern about a surveillance state that's been growing. There's concern that government is collecting much more information than it actually needs to prosecute terrorism."

Certainly, the government should be trying to track down terrorists, Amash tells NPR's Don Gonyea.

"I would say libertarian Republicans believe that national defense is the No. 1 priority of the federal government under the Constitution," Amash says. "But whatever we do has to comport with the Constitution. So we can't violate individual liberty; we can't violate privacy and property rights in the pursuit of terrorism."

At a GOP gathering last month, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called libertarian ideas about national security "dangerous."

In a rebuttal, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — seen as stepping into his father's shoes as the new face of libertarianism — said he was the one "trying to grow the party by talking about libertarian ideas and privacy and the Internet, and attacking me isn't helping the party."

Cohen, a professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, says libertarianism is becoming appealing to more Republicans because of its popularity with a younger generation of voters.

"That is a demographic that they desperately need to do better with," he says. "That socially liberal, economically conservative, non-interventionist policy stance popular among libertarians is very appealing to younger, college-age people. ... Some of these people are disaffected Obama voters who have been turned off by the Obama administration's national security policies and foreign policies and interventionism."

In its summer meeting, the Republican National Committee discussed — if circuitously — how it plans to broaden its base in the years to come. Amid calls for strengthening the party, Chairman Reince Priebus encouraged debate.

"We should be roiling with new ideas, new leaders, and yes, some internal debates. Thank goodness we are," he said. "And I say bring on the conversations because they're a sign that this Republican Party is preparing itself to lead this country."

Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary for George W. Bush, says whenever a party isn't in the White House, "you're going to see a fight for the soul of that party until a nominee emerges."

He points to division within the Democratic Party in 2007 and 2008, when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama went head-to-head for their party's support.

"But winning the White House takes care of a lot of that," Fleischer says. "It's Republicans' turn now to be out of the White House and fight for who the nominee is that will represent the party."

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