WASHINGTON -- Bob Barr launched his Libertarian Party presidential bid Monday morning, and wasted no time taking aim at presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, whom he blasted as a "Johnny-come-lately" to the Bush tax cuts who doesn't have any claim to the label "conservative."
The former congressman from Georgia reiterated a series of stances on issues that could complicate his efforts to capture the Libertarian nomination later this month, but make him potentially dangerous to McCain in some swing states in the general election.
Barr remains pro-life, and is less extreme in his small government and antiwar views than purists within the Libertarian Party.
For instance, while Barr said he favored "reevaluating" government spending in the Departments of Education, Commerce, and Energy, as well as the need for U.S. bases overseas, he did not make a blanket statement, as past Libertarian candidates have, to eliminate such departments, and immediately close all overseas bases. Probably his closest bond with Libertarians is his strong stance against the PATRIOT Act.
On international affairs in general, his tone was a lot more measured than what we've seen from Ron Paul -- there were no stinging critiques of U.S. as an imperialist nation.
Barr voted for the Iraq War, but now believes it was a mistake and wants to "set in place a plan" to "dramatically decrease the military, the economic, and the political footprint we maintain in Iraq."
But his language remained cautious. He opposes precipitous withdrawal, and described it as "foolhardy" to announce a timetable for pulling out of Iraq. "Only a fool would signal to whoever their adversaries are when we would be drawing down our troops," he said.
In response to another question, he added that "the doctrine of preemptive war has no basis in traditional and historical notions of America's security."
Such is the dance he is employing to mollify Libertarians while trying to appeal to a broader constituency than the typical nominee of the party.
WHEN I ASKED HIM how he would handle Iran's quest for nuclear weapons, he opened with a dig at McCain, remarking, "First of all, I'm not going to go around making up songs about such a serious matter." This was an obvious reference to McCain's "Bomb, bomb Iran" ditty.
He said that Iran is a much different place from Iraq, and that military action there would have tremendous consequences, so it should not be taken lightly. He described the possibility of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons as "remote" and said he believes that there are many diplomatic avenues that have not been fully explored yet.
Aside from the issues, what struck me was how much more of his fire was reserved for McCain, with little criticism offered for Barack Obama. When asked what his problems were with McCain, he quipped, "How long do we have here?"
Barr declared, "Anybody who stands as the foundation of their domestic agenda, McCain-Feingold, today cannot lay claim, at least with a straight face, to calling themselves, or being labeled as a conservative."
McCain was not truly committed to reducing the size of government, Barr said. He dismissed McCain's opposition to earmarks as a "red herring," because even if you eliminated all of them it would be a drop in the bucket in comparison to the overall budget.
Barr also said McCain was, "not committed to deep and significant tax reform. As a matter of fact, there are some legitimate questions that have been raised over whether McCain is simply a Johnny-come-lately to the modest tax cuts which have been the only area in which the current administration has done what it said it would do."
REPORTERS PRESSED BARR on why he was running, and if he were concerned with costing Republicans the general election. He said that if McCain doesn't win, it's because his message isn't resonating with the American people, and nobody else should be blamed.
He joked, dryly, "At the end of the day, if I do not succeed on November 4, then it's not my intent to blame Senator McCain or Senator Obama."
He also delivered another jab at McCain: "Those people who would be inclined, of which I hope there are many, to vote for Bob Barr as president, would not likely fall into the category of people who would be enthused by voting for John McCain, if such exits."
Barr said he was not taking the Libertarian nomination for granted, but remains "very confident" that he will prevail because the LP is a "political party" that wants to win and not a "debating society." Many would disagree.
In response to a question by AmSpec contributor and Investors' Business Daily correspondent Sean Higgins, Barr said the campaign did have a plan to target very specific states, although he would not share that plan publicly. If Barr, who was a board member of the National Rifle Association, could garner a few percent of conservative anti-McCain votes in swing states, he could help damage the Republican nominee.
He was evasive on the question of fundraising, saying the campaign was just starting today. But there have already been reports of difficulty during the exploratory phase of his candidacy. He has brought on Russ Verney, who served as Ross Perot's adviser in 1992 and campaign manager in 1996.
The questions regarding Barr's candidacy are whether the more temperate tone he is striking will hinder his ability to tap into the enthusiasm generated by Ron Paul's presidential run. Also, whether, if he is able to catch fire and win some media attention, his more moderate approach to foreign policy could make him a bigger threat to McCain.
This is all very debatable, but this is something worth keeping your eyes on.
Philip Klein is a reporter for The American Spectator.
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