“As Dante Alighieri said many centuries ago, the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” With that, former Congressman Bob Barr announced to a group of Midwestern Libertarian Party activists that he was taking the first step toward running for president.
If nominated, Barr could be the most successful Libertarian presidential candidate in the party’s 37-year history — and John McCain’s worst nightmare. For unlike Ed Clark, the current Libertarian record-holder who won just under 1 million votes in the 1980 presidential race, Bob Barr is no “low-tax liberal.”
Ever since Ronald Reagan appointed him U.S. attorney for the northern district of Georgia in 1986, Barr has been a leader on behalf of conservative causes (he has more recently, in the interest of full disclosure, been a contributing editor to The American Spectator). Representing Georgia’s Seventh Congressional District as a Republican from 1995 to 2003, he is best known for his role in passing the Defense of Marriage Act — which has kept the marriage laws of all 50 states from being at the tender mercies of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court — and as a House manager in the impeachment of Bill Clinton.
In 2002, Barr lost his congressional seat after redistricting forced him into a primary with fellow Republican Congressman John Linder. After leaving the House, he has focused on civil liberties and privacy protections, opposing the Bush administration on the Patriot Act and its national surveillance program. These issues, along with the explosion in federal spending, drove Bar toward the Libertarian Party and away from the GOP.
Yet he didn’t forget his old friends as he made new ones. Barr involved conservative leaders Paul Weyrich and Grover Norquist in his efforts to reform the Patriot Act; he also worked with David Keene and Richard Viguerie to rein in Bush-era expansions of executive power. Civil libertarians valued him as a bridge to the right while his conservative allies regarded him a reminder of when Republicans opposed the Clinton administration’s power grabs and activist foreign policy.
Barr can potentially appeal to disgruntled conservatives who see the choice of McCain or the Democrats as analogous to picking between being punched in the stomach or kneed in the groin. This includes both the enthusiastic — and generous — grassroots activists who powered libertarian Congressman Ron Paul’s GOP presidential campaign and many more conventional Republicans in whom McCain inspires dyspepsia. No less a mainstream conservative than Rush Limbaugh has argued that McCain’s election would lead to a revival of Rockefeller Republicanism. To some on the right, that’s as bad as extending the Clinton dynasty.
BUT FIRST BARR MUST move beyond the exploratory phase of his campaign and win the Libertarian nomination, which seems doable but not inevitable. Libertarians are not necessarily looking for the same things as anti-McCain Republicans. Barr’s 98 percent American Conservative Union rating, pro-life voting record, and hard line on immigration might help him in the general election. But these positions aren’t necessarily assets in a party that is officially pro-choice, supports open borders, and prefers the Nolan Chart to the left-right political spectrum.
There are other issues that divide Ron Paul Republicans from Rush Limbaugh Republicans. Barr voted for the Iraq war but now opposes it. He also voted for the Patriot Act — after sunset provisions were included — and now regrets doing so. He sponsored an amendment to deny funds to the District of Columbia to even conduct a ballot initiative on medical marijuana but has since lobbied on behalf of the Marijuana Policy Project to have this policy reversed. This pragmatism might make conservatives more willing to listen. It could also brand Barr as the Libertarian Party’s Mitt Romney: a flip-flopper unacceptable to the purists he is attempting to woo.
On foreign policy, Barr sounds like Paul when he says “we are better than the policy of preemptive war” and “must renew a commitment to non-intervention.” But he is more careful to emphasize that he is willing to use force against those who would do America harm: “If attacked, the aggressor will experience firsthand the skillful wrath of the American fighting man.”
Will that be good enough? Congressman Tom Tancredo ran for president as a single-issue immigration restrictionist, an area where he is much closer to Barr than McCain. Yet Tancredo told the Rocky Mountain News he was reluctantly supporting McCain because he believes Barr has “a blind spot on radical Islam.”
The recent history of third-party challenges on the right is similarly discouraging. Ron Paul won 0.5 percent of the vote as the Libertarian nominee in 1988. Pat Buchanan, one of the most famous conservatives in America, won 0.42 percent as the Reform Party candidate in 2000. Both faced resistance within the parties that nominated them on account of their more conventionally conservative positions. John Schmitz, a sitting Republican congressman, managed just 1.4 percent as the standard-bearer for George Wallace’s American Independent Party in 1972.
To find counterexamples, one must go back to Wallace himself in 1968 and Ross Perot in the 1990s. Neither man had very strong conservative credentials. Perot actually did better among independents and moderate Republicans than conservatives. But the right remembers Perot as the man who helped elect Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, just as the left blames Ralph Nader for Al Gore’s defeat in 2000. If the McCain-Obama/McCain-Clinton is close, some of the prodigal Republicans Barr is counting on may well return home on Election Day.
If there are “sufficient numbers” of supporters, Barr will try to defy the odds. He may feel he has no alternative if the only other way to avoid the hottest places in hell is to choose between two candidates he can only vote for when hell freezes over.