Is Bob Barr the Ralph Nader of 2008?
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Q: How many Libertarians does it take to screw in a light bulb? A: None. The invisible hand of the market will take care of it. What are you, a socialist?
That wasn't the only joke I heard last weekend at the Libertarian national convention in Denver, but it was the easiest to remember. The others involved obscure references to Austrian economics, or Ludwig von Mises walking into a bar with an FDA official under his arm.
For many Libertarian delegates, the best joke of the weekend wasn't overheard in the lunch line; it was the result of the convention itself, which party veterans describe as the most bruising and ideologically acrimonious in a quarter-century. After six ballots, a deeply divided party chose the dour former Republican Congressman Bob Barr as its presidential candidate and a brash Vegas oddsmaker named Wayne Allyn Root as his number two. Both are recent GOP defectors, and both are viewed with suspicion if not hostility by much of the party's radical or "purist" old guard, which rallied around the candidacy of veteran Libertarian activist Mary Ruwart.
It turns out the Democrats aren't the only ones with a unity problem. In the run-up to the balloting, a determined anti-Barr front advertised itself with buttons and fliers declaring fealty to "the Libertarian wing of the Libertarian Party." When Barr finally secured the nomination with 54 percent of the vote, Ruwart not only pointedly failed to endorse him in her concession speech, but sounded like she was going underground with her troops to fight another day. "Our work continues," she said. "Writing, speaking, recruiting." But not campaigning.
It's not yet clear whether any of this should concern those outside the tiny world of Libertarian politics. But inside the convention hall on Sunday, it was possible to mistake the victory of Barr/Root '08 as a ground-shaking world-historical event. One despondent member of the Libertarian Radical Caucus wearing a button depicting Barr as the Wicked Witch of the West expressed fears that the choice spelled the end of the Libertarian Party, and thus the end of America's, and hence the world's, last best hope. "This is a disaster. (Barr) hasn't been around long enough to be one of us," he said. "He still has so much to learn about Liberty -- and much to atone for."
In the eyes of many of his new comrades, Barr has yet to fully atone for his entire political career prior to his conversion to the Libertarian cause in 2006, the same year the wheels started wobbling wildly on the GOP's pickup truck. Even many Libertarians who welcome Barr's candidacy as a boost for the party's profile (and, they hope, their chances of spoiling the candidacy of that statist pretender to Barry Goldwater's throne, John McCain) admit they are left uneasy by Barr's long "anti-Liberty" record in Congress.
This record includes voting for the Patriot Act, staunch support for the war on drugs (Barr is a former federal prosecutor) and authorship of the Defense of Marriage Act. He has since renounced many, if not all, of his old positions, but the turnaround has been too recent and too sudden for many Libertarians to fully swallow his conversion story. In 2002, the Libertarian Party called Barr "the worst drug warrior in Congress." Last Sunday, Barr's nomination was seconded by Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, on whose behalf Barr last year lobbied Congress.
Barr's is not the resume most Libertarians expected from their 2008 presidential candidate, and many delegates were left shocked and dazed at what they see as a "conservative coup" they fear will turn their party into Establishment-lite. "Exposure is great, but not at the expense of our soul," said one state chairman who backed Ruwart for president. Lew Rockwell's blog, representing the hard-line anarcho-capitalist wing of the party, applauded an anti-Barr rant delivered on the convention floor for "calling out delegates who nominated a man who helped put people in jail for possession of drugs and seems to have no concept of property rights." A member of Outright Libertarians, the party's gay caucus, wondered after Barr secured the nomination, "How do we present ourselves to gay voters as better than the Demopublicans when our candidate authored the Defense of Marriage Act?"
A fair question for Libertarians, but does Barr's candidacy really have national implications, as some polls suggest? Despite having achieved 50-state ballot access in the past and once garnering an actual electoral vote (1972, Virginia), the Libertarian Party has never cracked the 1 percent barrier nationally or broken a million votes (though Ed Clark came close in 1980). Although its state parties have arguably swung Senate races Democratic in Montana and Missouri, it has never come close to being a deciding factor in a national election. And it is hard to imagine that changing in November. Even with a high-profile former congressman (Barr) and a former senator (Mike Gravel) competing at its convention, the party still has the look and feel of a geeky extracurricular activity -- part philosophical debate society, part Lassiez Faire economics book club, part internet-based family of Statist Dungeons & Socialist Dragons gaming enthusiasts. Then there is the extreme anti-government message that doesn't exactly have America's retirees and food-stamp recipients swooning.
Of course, this is precisely the image and reality that Barr and the reformist wing of the Libertarian Party is determined to change. "There has been a drift toward the conservative and reformist end of the spectrum for a couple of years now," said Allan Wallace, a delegate from Knoxville. "The nomination of Bob Barr is the culmination of that." The shift became noticeable two years ago in Portland, when the Libertarian Party platform was softened at the edges and made punchier for broader appeal. Academic third-rail debates within in the party on issues such as child prostitution are consciously being muted. Most shockingly for the party's purist old guard, longtime party activists are being publicly attacked by the new reform-minded GOP converts. When false rumors began swirling around the convention that Wayne Root's campaign manager had gone on Glenn Beck's nightly CNN freak show and accused a rival candidate of defending child pornography, older Libertarians said they expected as much from the new conservative wing of the party. "We do not need GOP-style fear tactics and backstabbing in this party," fumed presidential candidate Ruwart. There was similar outrage when Barr delegates booed convention speakers critical of his candidacy and marched around the convention floor like they owned the place (dressed up in stupid cowboy hats, no less).
Yet even those Libertarians critical or despondent over the way the party is trending feel that 2008 is their breakout year. "It's been a perfect storm for us," said one delegate from California. "Between the Ron Paul phenomenon and widespread dissatisfaction with the two major parties, there is a flood of new interest in our ideas. And with Barr, (we're) being included in national polls for the first time."
And whatever their reservations about Barr's Libertarian transformation in progress, most party members acknowledge that the Clinton impeachment Republican attack dog will draw more media attention to the party than it has ever enjoyed in the past. "The radicals alienate people and attract only marginal media," said a young member of the party's Reform Caucus who remains skeptical of Barr. "We need to market ourselves better to the mainstream, and (Barr) can do that. We have to stop telling people that you have to read Murray Rothbard on the toilet and want to privatize the streets and the oceans or else you're a communist."
"It's true he's not a thoroughbred Libertarian, but the fact is the day Barr announced his candidacy, publicity spiked and so did donations and volunteer interest," said Austin Peterson, a volunteer coordinator for the party. "The anarchist bloc and the purists have to understand that they can't grow the party on their own."
Another sign that Barr is already opening the Libertarian Party's gates to an influx of disaffected conservative Republicans was the convention presence of legendary Republican fund-raiser Richard Viguerie, whose involvement in the Libertarian Party closely mirrors that of Barr's.
"The GOP has abandoned conservatives, who are off the reservation," Viguerie said in a keynote speech Saturday. "Technology is the key to making the Libertarian Party the new force in American politics. Become a blogger in the battle for America's soul. We don't need Wall Street Republicans when we have the tools of the new age."
Barr has so far raised $134,000 through his website. Not exactly Ron Paul numbers, but Barr's campaign recently hired Paul's web designer, and he's hoping to catch some of the grassroots mojo that put $6 million in the Paul campaign's coffers.
At the moment, fundraising is a touchy subject for Barr, for reasons other than meager coffers. Last week, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an investigation into Barr's political action committee that revealed the Libertarian candidate for president has raised $4.3 million since leaving Congress in 2002, much of it by targeting elderly conservatives with promises to help Republican candidates, not Libertarians. According to FEC filings, Barr has failed to spend much of this money on anyone, no matter the party, who lack the surname Barr. When the Journal-Constitution pressed Barr on the PAC's family hires and $3 million spent on data mining for future fundraising, he snapped, "Fine, it doesn't operate the way other PACs operate. Next question."
The next question, and the only one that really matters, is how many disgruntled Republican votes Barr can suck away from John McCain, regardless of the sandbox political intrigue broiling in his own party.
"I'll vote for John McCain before I vote for Bob Barr," said John Nichols, a Libertarian delegate from Indiana. "McCain actually has a more Libertarian voting record than the one Barr racked up in his years in Congress, and it's pretty scary when a warmongering statist has a better record on civil liberties than the Libertarian candidate."
This article has been corrected.
Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist.