It's gut check time for America's casual libertarians.
After watching Rand Paul get pilloried for engaging in a politically foolish theoretical discussion about the constitutionality of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it's obvious that the days when liberals tolerated libertarians are over.
For decades, conservatives who didn't want to be associated with the more controversial precincts of the Right have had an easy dodge: “I'm really more of a libertarian. … “
It's akin to that other favorite phrase for polite company “I'm really more spiritual than religious. … “
The point in both cases is to sidestep the liberal and anti-religious pieties of the chattering classes. They are ways to answer uncomfortable questions at a cocktail party or while talking with other parents at soccer practice.
Why haven't you signed up for the Obama bake sale?
Did you hear that great climate change story on NPR?
Is it true that you own a gun?
You're not a Republican, are you?
For denizens of cities where the dominant culture is liberal, “more of a libertarian” has been a useful survival tool.
The phrase was a particularly helpful as a shorthand way to distance oneself from those on the Right seeking to legislate morality. It said: “I don't care if you're gay or a single mom. I just want to be left alone.”
But it also came in handy as away to express doubts about overseas military interventions, corporate welfare, public corruption or anything else that the Republican Party did that was unpopular.
There are some hard-core libertarians whose views, especially after the fourth beer, meander out into some post-American, anarcho-capitalist fantasy. These people like to be identified as uppercase Libertarians in hopes of creating a tedious argument that will allow them to drone on and on about the evils of the Post Office, standing armies and the Food and Drug Administration.
There are many more conservatives whose political views are rooted in liberty. They have the idea that government is a necessary evil that should exist to guarantee citizens' God-given freedoms and do as little else as possible. Not wanting to be associated with the uppercase Libertarians, these folks generally avoid the word. Rather than fantasizing about what agencies they would abolish, they are more worried about preventing new agencies from being formed.
The casual libertarian, though, is probably from Gen X or Gen Y. They read most of “Atlas Shrugged” in college, saw “Schindler's List” and came to the conclusion that government power was dangerous and that people should do whatever they want as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else.
They didn't like the PC scolds on the Left or the uptight Young Republicans on the Right, so they did their own thing and thus became “more of a libertarian.”
And as long as the central political fights in America were about morality and foreign policy, liberals recognized “more of a libertarian” as a declaration of noncombatant status.
But the battles of today are all about the size and shape of government.
The liberal, Democratic president has pushed his party to embrace overseas military intervention. Liberals are not eager to talk about the fact that their leader has sent 100,000 troops to Afghanistan without a realistic exit strategy.
On social issues, with the notable exception of abortion, the libertines have mostly won. When pay-per-view can bring hard-core pornography to living rooms around the clock, who cares about keeping Playboy out of 7-Eleven?
Front and center now are government power, government spending and individual liberty.
When Mr. “I'm really more of a libertarian” adopted his line, he didn't foresee a $13 trillion national debt, the Internal Revenue Service enforcing a federal mandate to purchase health insurance, and the government owning car companies and banks. He just wanted to get a good job and still be able to smoke pot now and then.
Now, saying you are “more of libertarian” means you are anti-Obamacare and anti-Washington. Rather than winning grudging tolerance from liberals, the word may evoke epithets like “teabagger” or even “racist.”
When it was a marginal ideology, it was one thing for the Left to tolerate libertarianism. But now that it's catching on thanks to the gross overreach of the Obama administration, watch the invective rise.
The feeding frenzy on Paul's professorial response to questions on the Civil Rights Act is just the start of what will be an assault on small-government ideas.
Those who embraced “more of a libertarian” as a way out of the political wars of the past two decades now find themselves walking point in the biggest battle yet.
Chris Stirewalt is the political editor of The Washington Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org