A Spoiler on the Right?

It's weird to hear people describe your politics, especially if you're at all difficult to categorize. Over the years, I've had people introduce me as conservative, liberal, and libertarian. They're all partly right. In my midteens in the late 1960s, I looked around for a political movement to join, something more sustaining than anti-Vietnam War marches. I was raised a Dan Evans Republican, supported Bobby Kennedy for president, shook hands with both Richard Nixon and Henning Blomen, the Socialist Labor Party candidate for president in 1968. I searched vainly for a home with both the Republicans and Democrats.

In the early 1970s, I read an article in The New York Times Magazine about the "New Right," student activists who rejected the socialism of the New Left and embraced the principles of civil liberties and the free market. I was intrigued, especially since they were adamantly opposed to the draft. It was around that time the Libertarian Party was formed, and I soon had a chance to check them out. In 1972, as a student newspaper reporter, I attended a Libertarian meeting in a back room at Ozzie's on Lower Queen Anne. The few attendees sat in a small dark cave at a big round table talking endlessly about Ayn Rand and the virtues of selfishness. They seemed obsessed with the joys of the Darwinian jungle, though none of them looked like winning specimens in that race to self- reliance. The men were like Lenny in Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men"; the women like Dr. Evil's mistress, Frau Farbissina. If this were an Agatha Christie novel, I'd have been rooting for the killer.

I decided that day that this was a party I would never join.

A lot of libertarians feel that way. They're not exactly the joining type, most being focused on leave-me-alone-ism. Millions of votes are cast for Libertarian candidates, but there are only some 25,000 card- carrying, dues-paying party members. One is Michael Badnarik, 50, a former computer programmer from Austin, Texas, who is the party's 2004 candidate for president. He came by the Seattle Weekly offices to chat on Monday, Aug. 16.

Badnarik describes organizing Libertarians as herding cats or nailing Jell-O. He says there are approximately 150,000 self-identified Libertarians in the country. In 2000, Libertarian Party candidates garnered more than 3 million votes nationwide. He was quoted in one newspaper saying about his core constituency, "It's not being a Libertarian that makes them independent and cantankerous. It's being independent and cantankerous that makes them libertarian." He should know. He didn't get his party's nomination until the third ballot, and even then, Badnarik admits, he won because he was everyone's second choice.

But he's an articulate standard-bearer with a mission: to convince voters that they don't have to pick the lesser of two evils every time out. His goal isn't to win the election, obviously, but to steer the party on a course to become a factor in the election. In polarized Red-Blue America, the tiny percentages that third-party candidates command can be crucial. In short, Badnarik wants to prove that two can play Ralph Nader's game.

He argues that he's neither left nor right but a "second dimension" that adds something new to the political mix. Libertarians believe in the free market, slashing taxes, cutting government spending and regulation, and defending civil liberties. This plays to both the right and left, depending on where you focus. Badnarik can emphasize parts of the party's platform that will be music to both Red and Blue ears. In North Carolina, he can emphasize law and order and gun rights (Libertarians are strong Second Amendment supporters). When asked about the death penalty by the Wilmington, N.C., Star News, he sounded like a promoter of vigilante justice when he replied, "In my opinion, the best place to initiate the death penalty is at 2 a.m. at the ATM when someone comes up to take your money." In San Francisco or Seattle, he can emphasize his opposition to the drug war, rail against banning gay marriage, promise to bring the troops home from Iraq immediately, and pledge to rescind the Patriot Act. In our discussion, he bashed Bush more than Kerry. It's not that he's inconsistent or pandering – it's just that the Libertarian philosophy cuts the pie in a wholly different way.

How do the Libertarians become a factor? By affecting the outcome of the election. While Nader is widely blamed for tipping the 2000 election to Bush (or the Supreme Court that appointed him), the Libertarian impact might also have been felt closer to home. Former Republican Sen. Slade Gorton blames Libertarian candidate Jeff Jared for his defeat that year by Democrat Maria Cantwell, saying he siphoned off critical conservative votes in an election that was settled by about 2,500 votes. (Ironically, Nader has also tried to claim credit for getting Cantwell elected.) Polls have indicated that both Republicans and Democrats vote for Libertarians, but the party seems to draw more from the GOP. Badnarik says he's polling at 5 percent in New Mexico, a key swing state, and 1 percent to 1.5 percent in four key upper Midwestern states, pulling enough Republican and independent voters from Bush to make a tiny – but possibly critical – difference.

If he can be blamed for the outcome either way, it will be a successful year for the Libertarians and Badnarik – especially since polls also show that 80 percent of the American people have never heard of the Libertarian Party (see their booth at Hempfest). They might live to be reviled by Republicans – as Nader is by many Democrats. That will be a sign that at last, they matter.


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