Like most national politicians, former Republican Congressman Bob Barr is skilled in the art of generic political rhetoric, the fine art of saying a lot without saying much at all. “I want to raise the level of debate in this campaign,” he says, “I want to talk about fundamental issues,” which he claims have “been absent from the current debate.” But Barr is determined not to be seen as just another bland ex-legislator, and he proves it when he follows up by saying, “I also want to move Libertarians to the front and center of national politics and make them consistent figures on the political scene.”
It’s a rather ambitious project. The Libertarian Party – or, as it’s more often referred to, the LP – has never figured into the country’s electoral process as much more than a curiosity. Indeed, it’s had such difficulty insinuating itself into the national political debate that it practically offered its nomination to a contender in the Republican presidential primary, Congressman Ron Paul, whose campaign resulted in a surprising amount of media attention, if not votes, and whose anti-war, limited-government message was embraced by many (though by no means all) libertarians.
But despite the LP’s urgings, Paul will not run for its nomination. And that’s where Barr comes in. The former Georgia Republican Congressman, best known for his 1998 House effort to impeach Bill Clinton, is now considering a presidential run on the Libertarian ticket. He recently launched a campaign website, complete with a blog and a YouTube channel which features, among other things, short clips of him railing against the nanny state and explaining why he left the GOP – all of which seem designed to create the image of Barr as something more than a typical, bromide-spouting former Congressman.
Barr, who lost his House seat after four terms in 2003 when congressional redistricting forced him to run against an incumbent fellow Republican, believes that he had little choice but to cast his lot in 2008 with the Libertarian Party. Republicans, he claims, have abandoned their core principles of small government and individual liberties – and cast out the classical liberals in their ranks. “The Republicans left us behind.” Barr switched his registration to Libertarian in December and launched his Presidential Exploratory Committee on April 5. If he decides to seek the Libertarian nomination, he could be well positioned to rake in votes from the small-government faithful and be a protest candidate for both disaffected Democrats and Republicans.
Before he can wrap up the nomination, though, the right-leaning Barr – once a formidable anti-drug crusader and author of the Defense of Marriage Act – will have to court moderate and left-leaning libertarians. To that end, he cites his work with outfits on both sides of the ideological spectrum, from the American Civil Liberties Union to the American Conservative Union, as evidence that, if nominated, he could unite the libertarian movement and move forward toward the general election with a broad-based coalition. If all else fails, he thinks pragmatism might lead some otherwise unconvinced libertarians into his fold. “If we can’t put our difference aside to protect our liberties from government intrusion, then all of us lose.”
How well Barr is able to convince his skeptics to support his run could depend on how he handles his budding reputation as a flip-flopper – one that American Spectator’s W. James Antle III has explored at some length. He voted for two controversial bills – the Patriot Act and the Iraq War resolution – and backtracked on both. Barr dismisses the flip-flopper label as a “tactic that both parties use” to stifle debate. “One would hope that we’d want public officials to reevaluate their positions based on new information or new circumstances.” He cites President Bush, in particular, as a textbook example of a politician locked into his beliefs – without room for rethinking them. Applying the flip-flopper label, Barr says, “would mean that once [a candidate] had voted for something, he’d be stopped from revisiting the issue.”
His explanation might not pass muster, however, to those who opposed the Iraq War from the start. On this issue, Barr spins his wheels, lamenting the “flawed intelligence” that misled Congress and reiterating the oft-used line that Congress had voted to remove Saddam Hussein – not to nation build. How convincing libertarians will find his argument remains unclear. Whether his position is based on principle or political expedience, one thing is for sure: These days, Barr clearly wants out of Iraq. “It is irresponsible to spend how much we’re spending there,” he says. “[Those funds] should be in the pockets of Americans – not in the pockets of Iraqis.”
Such a perceived departure from his 2003 position could turn off some tried-and-true libertarians. But it could also reassure libertarian pragmatists that Barr has become a believer – at least enough to represent them in November. “There are differences,” he concedes, “but I think we can all agree that the first step toward solving these issues is to begin getting the federal government out of them. Libertarians, regardless of where we fall on the spectrum, believe that the government is too big, spends too much, and exerts too much power.”
His mixed record on libertarian issues could present Barr with more than electoral challenges. His fundraising could also depend on how well he is able to motivate the same base that catapulted Ron Paul from little-known Republican congressman to a much talked-about political phenomenon who raised more money than the eventual Republican nominee, John McCain, for much of 2007. It’s obvious that Barr’s been studying the Paul campaign for clues; he plans to focus his efforts on building a grassroots online network of volunteers and contributors similar to the one that launched Paul out of obscurity.
Still, how much enthusiasm the libertarian base will have for Barr is an open question. To date, he has raised a mere $52,000 – not enough to fund a serious campaign, and practically nothing in comparison with the $4 million that Paul earned during one-day fundraiser last November. But Barr is confident that, as the LP nominee, he could cash in on his name recognition and help marshal the contributions that he’d need to mount a competitive, 50-state campaign. “I am convinced that the funding and the interest are out there.”
If so, Barr has to work fast to shore it up. The LP convention opens on May 22 in Denver and would pit him against 14 other candidates – including former Democrat Mike Gravel – for the nomination. That leaves him with little more than a few weeks to cobble together a platform that illustrates both his commitment to libertarian causes and his appeal to crossovers disenchanted with the two bigger parties.
Of course, some wonder if that disenchantment, in combination with a Barr run, won’t have spillover effects in November. Reason’s Dave Weigel recently floated a scenario in which Barr plays Republican spoiler in the November election, and Antiwar.com’s Justin Raimondo wrote last month that a Barr run would “deny John McCain the White House.” Asked how he would feel about playing spoiler in November, Barr responds that he doesn’t see his candidacy as being capable of spoiling anything. “That presupposes that the two big parties have a God-given right to the office. I don’t believe that. The more legitimate candidates there are with positive messages, the better it is for America.”
For Barr, then, this run – if he decides to make it – will be a chance to move beyond the usual political platitudes and pick up the banners of small government and individual liberties while encouraging other candidates to do the same. “I hope that libertarians, who are the last ones to uphold these principles, can help to rekindle them elsewhere.”
–Dorian Davis is a New York-based writer. He has published work in AFF’s Brainwash, Business Week, and New York Daily News.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kaavya Ramesh
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Hadley Heath