Monday, April 14, 2008

Bob Barr: Special Report

UPDATED & BUMPED: Courtesy of Third Party Watch, here's video of Barr on C-SPAN's "Washington Journal":

Saturday, while I was in North Carolina to cover Bob Barr's speech to the state Libertarian Party convention, Stephen Gordon of Third Party Watch alerted me that George Will had just posted a Newsweek column analyzing Barr as a threat to John McCain:
Compact and feisty Bob Barr, 59, probably will seek and get the presidential nomination of the Libertarian Party, which convenes in Denver on Memorial Day weekend. Given the recent fund-raising prowess of a kindred spirit -- Ron Paul's campaign for the Republican nomination siphoned up $35 million, mostly off the Internet -- libertarians are feeling their oats. . . .
The main problem with that column is . . . well, George Will obviously hasn't hung out at too many Libertarian Party events.

What makes perfect sense to Will -- that the LP would score a great coup by nominating Barr, a veteran politician with a high-profile media image, as its presidential candidate -- is by no means self-evident to LP regulars.

My American Spectator special report is chiefly an attempt to explain the challenges Barr faces in winning over the Libertarians:
The delegates applauded at the end of Barr's speech, but afterwards it was clear that many of those attending the two-day state convention still viewed the Republican-turned-Libertarian with a good deal of skepticism. When a presidential preference straw poll was taken the next day, Barr got only one vote, compared to 17 for longtime LP activist Mary Ruwart, three for Massachusetts physicist George Phillies and two for Las Vegas oddsmaker Wayne Allen Root. (Ruwart is something of a "favorite daughter" among Libertarians in North Carolina, where she lived for four years before moving to Texas last year.) Like Barr, ex-Democrat Mike Gravel got just one vote in the straw poll. . . .
Since Barr announced the formation of his exploratory committee April 5 at a Libertarian conference in Kansas City, his potential impact on the presidential race has been widely discussed as if his LP nomination were a certainty. . . . However, the fact that Barr could finish in a straw-poll tie with Gravel -- who only announced his conversion to the LP two weeks ago -- is one indication that Barr's nomination is by no means a fait accompli. . . .
Please read the whole article. The Spectator editors let me have over 1,100 words, but there wasn't nearly enough room to get in everything I gathered during my Burlington trip, or to explain everything that makes the LP presidential contest different from that of the major parties.

One of the things I couldn't fit into the article was a comment that Barr emphasized in his speech, that "this is the Libertarian Party, not the Libertarian group." Barr was saying, in other words, that the objective of the LP should be to acquire more members, attract more voters, and win more elections.

Obvious enough, right? Not to some hard-core LP activists, who seem to think of the LP as a super-selective private club, where only the ideologically pure are welcome. Brian Doherty wrote about this tendency in Radicals For Capitalism, his definitive history of the libertarian movement. If you've spent much time at gatherings of libertarians, you know the phenomenon Doherty describes.

Since leaving the Republican Party, Barr has worked as the LP's southeastern regional representative to the party's national committee. He has shifted his position on key issues, including drug policy, toward the Libertarian line, and has worked to boost the party's media profile. But to some of the hard-core LP types -- which includes a few who've been involved in the party almost since its inception in 1971 -- Barr is still an untrustworthy outsider, an interloper, and certainly not ideologically pure enough to be considered a real capital-L Libertarian.

That's the biggest problem Barr faces in getting the LP nomination. Speculation as to what impact a Barr candidacy might have in November is moot, unless he first succeeds in getting the support of enough party regulars to win at the Libertarian convention in Denver -- where George Will most definitely won't be a delegate.

UPDATE 1:30 p.m.: Dave Weigel of Reason magazine also endeavors to explain the challenges Barr faces in getting the LP nomination:
The party's got a comparable embarassment of riches this time, but it's easy to write a scenario where left-libertarians and people who simply don't like him elevate some less prime-time-ready candidate, and watch as the political press ignore them for six months.
Notice Weigel's use of the phrase "left-libertarians," which I'm not sure is quite the right term. The opposition to Barr is likely to be less ideological and more political -- or perhaps anti-political would be the better description. We are talking about people who appear to be opposed to trying to win elections.

Weigel also links Brian Doherty's report on the 2004 Libertarian convention, which nominated Michael Badnarik. Doherty describes that choice in the most tactful, diplomatic language:
All they want is to see someone out on the campaign trail saying the things that they believe in, in a style they are comfortable with. . . .
The delegates voted for the man who was the most like them, who presented in the most professional way the modal opinions and views and style of a Libertarian Party activist -- quiet, intense, no deviation from the catechism, more concerned with eternal ideological and philosophical verities than the political events of the day.
Because I'm fluent in Polite Euphemism, allow me to offer this colloquial translation:
The faction of anti-social kooks who listen to shortwave radio in their mother's basement formed a coalition to prevent the nomination from going to the glib, telegenic, outgoing Aaron Russo, because of the anti-social kook's inherent distrust and resentment of socially adept extroverts.
Healing begins with truth.


  1. Hi, Mr. McCain,

    I was pleased to meet you at this event, and I hope you felt welcome during your brief visit to our City of Burlington. I am a Reagan Republican and not a libertarian, but as I told my friend, the minority leader in the N.C. State House, the growth of the U.S. government to the size it is today should make most conservatives vote like libertarians, if sometimes for different reasons. I was especially grateful that I could register for this convention and chat with Congressman Barr and Senator Gravel. Mr. Barr, I think, would benefit by preparing some stem-winding speeches, instead of the free-flow extemporizing he did in Burlington, but he made the good points you reported. One weakness, I thought, was his somewhat equivocal commitment to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq (not "precipitously", I think he said), which may place him closer to Barack Obama than Ron Paul. But he is definitely an improvement over John McCain. In my private talk with him, he refused to endorse a return to the gold standard or something similar, viewing it as the kind of issue that has marginalized Ron Paul in the minds of the general public. But he acknowledged that the U.S. monetary system, as it stands, is broken and needs fixing. Can he win the votes of the kinds of people who come to Libertarian conventions? I don't know. The debates I heard Saturday seemed to be characterized by such ideas as entirely eliminating prisons, and Mary Ruwart, the N.C. "favorite daughter", as you described her, decried Bob Barr's sponsorship of the "Save Marriage Act", as she wants Congress to legitimate same sex marriages nationally. This position would not exactly make the Libertarian candidate a threat to John McCain among North Carolina voters. I will say this one thing stands in Bob Barr's favor, however - the biggest issue for N.C. Libertarians is getting their candidates on the ballot. Our state's strict laws require their presidential or gubernatorial candidate to pull 2% of this fall's ballots to assure them a place in the next cycle's elections without having to collect a gargantuan number of names on petitions. Even they recognize their best bet in this effort would be placed on Mr. Barr.

  2. Senator Gravel, I thought, was quite personable, delivered a good speech, and appeared much younger than his age. He also applauded my notion of building a Libertarian-Constitution-Green Party fushion for the fall election with an eye to breaking the Democratic-Republican monolith, but, as, according to his own bio, he personally pushed through Congress the Alaska oil pipeline, I don't see him getting the Green endorsement. I also thought he committed a gaffe before this crowd in intimating that Iranian Muslims are not our enemies but that the Wahabi Muslims of Saudi Arabia are. I, of course, would much prefer Ron Paul's stance of not making enemies of anyone we don't have to.

    As you mentioned, Sen. Gravel has given up on our present representative system of lawmaking, but he said I would have to buy his book to learn his prescription, which he says is authorized by the Constitution, for changing it. Personally, I've lost faith in popular democracy. I'd like us to go back to U.S. Senators chosen by state legislatures and Presidents elected by independent electors chosen on their own merits and not their pledge to support particular candidates.