Statements made by political parties, especially around the time of their nominating conventions are, necessarily, suspect.
So what should we make of the Libertarian Party’s latest pronouncement?
Noting the nomination of former Georgia Republican Congressman Bob Barr as the party’s 2008 presidential candidate, the Libertarians declare: “Republicans and Democrats have good reason to fear a candidate like Barr, who refuses to accept the ‘business-as-usual’ attitude of the current political establishment.”
Republicans, especially, fear Barr.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a fellow Georgian who never got on with Barr, says, “Bob Barr will make it marginally easier for Barack Obama to become president. That outcome threatens every libertarian value Barr professes to champion.”
The conservative Washington Times goes further, suggesting that, “Republicans, both publicly and behind the scenes, are saying that a Barr run could… sink Mr. McCain’s Republican candidacy in the general election.”
This may be the case.
But the key word here is “may.”
The extent to which Barr poses a real threat will depend on the sort of campaign he mounts. At this point, even Libertarians remain unsure of what to expect from their new nominee — and relatively new party member. (It was only after the 2006 elections that Barr officially left the GOP for the Libertarian fold.)
To be sure, a former congressman with a fiery speaking style, some maverick credentials and the ability to attract a crowd is a catch for a small party that has struggled in recent years to gain the attention and presidential votes that it seemed to be better at winning a quarter century ago. (The party’s record-high national vote up to this point came in 1980, when nominee Ed Clark took almost a million votes and more than one percent of the total turnout.)
Barr is more prominent than recent Libertarian nominees. In fact, he is a good deal better known as he accepts the party’s designation this year than the previous Republican congressman turned Libertarian nominee, a fellow named Ron Paul, was at the time of his 1988 run on the Libertarian line.
Barr is not without some libertarian — or, at the least, constitutional — credentials. Toward the end of his tenure in the House, when he joined California Democrat Maxine Waters in challenging the worst excesses of the Patriot Act, Barr showed a willingness to break with both big parties on some important civil liberties issues.
But Barr, the bulldog battler for the impeachment of Democratic President Bill Clinton back in 1998 and 1999, never quite came around — as other principled conservatives such as former Reagan administration lawyer Bruce Fein did — to actively supporting moves to hold Republican President George Bush to account.
For all his bluster — and his acknowledgment that Bush had broken laws — Barr could never muster the independence to call for the impeachment of a Republican president.
That was because, until rather recently, Barr struggled with the question of whether he really wanted to make a clean break with the Grand Old Party, which had never been all that good to him but where he had made his political home for decades.
The decision to join the Libertarians marked that formal break.
But Barr has yet to decide whether he will run as as a hybrid Republican-Libertarian or as a genuine “pox-on-both-their-houses” Libertarian. The uncertainty about whether the former Republican had really made “the switch” troubled many committed Libertarians — especially those who describe themselves as both “big-L” and “small-l” adherents of the party’s traditional views regarding government.
Barr has softened somewhat on drug-policy issues, for instance, but he was once one of the most over-the-top advocates in Congress for big-government interventions to tell Americans what drugs they can consume recreationally or medicinally (an ardent advocate for militarizing the “War on Drugs” as recently as 2002, he was a a member during his days in the House of the Speaker’s Task Force for a Drug-Free America), what medical treatments they could utilize (he was one of the most ardently anti-choice members of the House), who they could marry (he authored and sponsored the Defense of Marriage Act) and how they could worship (he once proposed that the Pentagon bar the practice of Wicca in the military).
When Barr was booted from Congress in 2002, Libertarians actually ran television ads condemning him as the worst sort of authoritarian.
Now, he’s their candidate.
But it was not an easy embrace.
At the Libertarian Party convention in Denver, it took six ballots to actually nominate Barr. He finally beat party stalwart Mary Ruwart (a former presidential and vice-presidential candidate) by the somewhat less than stunning margin of 324-276.
Needless to say, the convention choice did not resolve whether Barr will campaign as a conservative Republican running as a Libertarian, or a real Libertarian.
How Barr resolves this quandary will determine whether the Libertarian nominee is going to present a serious threat to McCain. If he just presents himself as a conservative Republican who has found a friendly ballot line, he won’t make much of an impression. When all is said and done, movement conservatives are exceptionally likely to rally behind McCain — just as they rallied behind George Herbert Walker Bush back in 1988. On the other hand, if Barr enters the fall competition with a campaign message that extends from Ron Paul’s renegade run for this year’s Republican nod — which attracted so much internet energy, money and support from young idealists — he might yet be the menace that Newt Gingrich describes, and fears.