If anything, the problems of the party with respect to converting young Americans has been understated, and it is not a mere question of demographics, but of principles. A young libertarian moderator of a discussion titled The Future of the Movement rattled off polling statistics on how the newest voting generation is fiscally conservative, but socially liberal; more to the point, even the young conservatives at the political action conference whose very theme is, ostensibly, "the next generation of conservatives" seem to fall enthusiastically in the same camp. Even the vehemently pro-life member of the panel says that people in that movement have differing opinions on gay marriage (though after the subject is brought up for the fourth or fifth time, she exasperatedly interrupts the moderator with something to the effect of: "I'm sorry, is this the gay marriage panel?") She is the odd woman out in this room. The audience is far younger, and much more lively, than any of the other panels I have been to, but I am sitting next to a pair of older gentlemen, and the applause battles from the two camps on various social conservative hot-buttons marks the generational divide between the young and the old, the social and the fiscal, as substantial.
But there is little to no stomach anywhere here for the fight against gay marriage. There seems little stomach for very much of the social conservative platform, here—excepting, perhaps, abortion, but even on that the stated focus by many younger and older speakers is that it should not be "litigated" through the courts but reduced through social activism. From Dick Morris to the college conservatives to the Rand Paul fans to Jennifer Rubin, etc., the feeling is afoot that the party must change its message, and social issues are where that change needs to take place.
Still, acceptance of that apparent necessity is strongly generational. If it were up to the younger half of the crowd, Rand Paul's version of libertarianism conservatism or conservative-ish libertarians would be the dominant GOP position, period. Since they are young and the older generation is, well, not, they are likely to get their wish. It will be slow going, however; the future of the party is not the present of the party, and the present power brokers of the party, the forty-somethings and fifty-somethings and sixty-somethings that run the party now have little interest in giving up those things. Those things motivate the older voters, and they need older voters. But they do not talk about them as much, and they talk about them in much more roundabout terms, perhaps, than they once did, because being a rigid social conservative now also carries a price, too, and it is the youngest voters in both parties who are now extracting it. You can see it in gay marriage; you can see it in the uneasy, shifting immigration stances; you can see it in a conference that speaks of religion, presumably a pinnacle of the conservative platform, with the formalities of a morning prayer but precious little other discussion.
It is suddenly quite clear why the current conservative movement is obsessed with taxes and deficits to the near-exclusion of all other topics: those are the only topics they can agree on. Those are always the consistent applause lines, while muddling along into anything else is treated tepidly unless it is spectacularly generic. Freedom? Yes, Freedom Good. Specify what kind of freedom you might mean, however, and unless it is about taxes or cutting the government you are likely to start a fight. Rand Paul faces no small danger in this himself, and through those abstractions navigates in front of this crowd well, but neither are Marco Rubio, or Ken Cuccinelli, or Allen West, or Mike Lee or Rick Perry or anyone else immune.
You want to get the crowd going, you talk about cutting taxes and cutting the federal government, any part of the federal government, wide swaths of government—but mention a social issue (gay marriage, immigration, issues of crime and punishment) and you are on thinner ice. So taxes and government spending it is.
There is a danger here, for Republicans, and certainly rougher waters than they have been used to. In any event, the gay marriage "issue" is not long for this world, and a profound shift in the party's hardline immigration stance may not be far behind. Other shifts may soon follow. On anything but fiscal issues and raw, jingling nationalism, the Republican Party may find their new base cutting out from under them.
There's an extended P.S. below the fold.
(This extended and somewhat geekish P.S. is because I am too lazy to put it elsewhere, but too much a stickler to leave it unsaid:
Yes, the obvious question would be whether the conference mood here is unduly skewed by the immense numbers of young libertarian attendees and others of a fiscally strict but socially permissive bent, thus being an invalid measure of the larger conservative base's mood. No, I don't think so. More likely, their presence demonstrates that whatever the older base's mood, it is the fiscal-not-social crowd that is most intent on holding the reins in the next generation. It is only a question of timing, of the relative steering power of the two groups, younger vs. older, and of how enthused or standoffish the younger group chooses to be when voting in the all-important primaries that flatly decide these things. Also: will there even be enough of them to make a difference? That is less clear. Initial ideological opinions are more fleeting, compared to those acquired in stuffy middle/old age, and we may see these up-and-comers evaporate into something more akin to liberalism or shuffle off to a third party, for all we know. That is the biggest danger the Republican Party faces; that these new conservative-but-not-social-conservative voters become jaded and bolt the party outright.
Note, too, that the party elders that have come to speak are not walking into a fire of alternative conservatism, nor is this the Libertarian Political Action Conference; they, too, have chosen what to speak of and what to leave unsaid, and the product is no different than the usual, generic stump speeches. All taxes, all cut-the-government, very circumspect on the social issues. If this were a church group the speeches would no doubt be different, but it isn't, it is the conservative gathering that presumes to speak for conservative gatherings, with all the Rick Perrys and Otto Reichs and Sarah Palins and Marco Rubii present and accounted for and adding their two cents to the conservative cup.)