April 02, 2008

Before the Gravelanche, word began to circulate that another more promising major-party defector might seek the Libertarian presidential nomination: former Republican Congressman Bob Barr. Gravel may be a better showman and rapper but Barr stands a better chance of giving the grassroots movement started by Ron Paul a second act.

In an interview with Antiwar Radio, Barr acknowledged there was a “great deal of dissatisfaction with the current candidates and the current two-party system.” “Ron Paul tapped into a great deal of that dissatisfaction and that awareness,” he continued. “Unfortunately, working through the Republican Party structure, it became impossible for him to really move forward with his movement. But we have to have a rallying point out there to harness that energy, that freedom in this election cycle.”

Can Barr be that rallying point? He opposes the Iraq war. He has criticized the Orwellian doublespeak of “enhanced interrogation.” He has been good on issues like the Patriot Act, without degenerating into Daily Kos-style hyperbole. We’ll soon find out if he is still sound on immigration and the life issues. The Barr for president boomlet ought to give paleoconservatives some hope.

When Paul more or less wrapped up his presidential campaign, I defended his decision to stay in the Republican Party. I still think he will have more influence, limited though it may be, as a Republican member of the House than he will as the candidate who breaks Ed Clarke’s record as the Libertarian Party’s top presidential vote-getter (or the man who beat Alan Keyes for the Constitution Party nomination). Working within the GOP becomes even more difficult if he is also moonlighting as the presidential candidate of another party.

Furthermore, I remain deeply skeptical of third parties. The electoral system is designed to stack the deck against them. They become debate societies for lunatics. Most third parties are either tied to the fortunes of a single candidate or labor in obscurity for decades. Yet they can act as a safety valve when the major parties give us such dreadful choices as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or John McCain. And if the Republican Party rejects the new blood Paul pumped into it, the Good Doctor’s supporters are entitled to someone to vote for in November. Barr is already gone from both Congress and the GOP, so we have little to lose from his protest candidacy.

Granted, Barr is no Ron Paul. He voted for the Patriot Act he now rails against. In Congress, he was a leading drug warrior. But he is a throwback to an era when the GOP opposed Bill Clinton’s military adventures and made at least some attempt to rein in federal spending (well, during 1995-96, at least).

Since leaving Congress, Barr has spent a considerable amount of time trying to remind conservatives of their past support for civil liberties. This led him to unlikely affiliations with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Libertarian Party. It also caused him to rethink some things. If he runs for president, Barr could end up being a good choice for conservatives who oppose the Iraq War but aren’t ready to become Obamacons.

In fact, Barr might be able to draw more votes from McCain’s conservative critics than Ron Paul. Best known for his work in passing the Defense of Marriage Act and trying to impeach Bill Clinton, he has credibility among the more conventional Republicans on the right that Paul lacked. Paul has taken some 800,000 votes in the GOP primaries so far, about double what a typical Libertarian Party nominee gets in a general election. Barr might be able to top this number.

Of course, there is no guarantee that Barr will even run much less dominate the Libertarian Party’s crowded presidential field. Prominent conservative figures have gone the third party route and then gone down in flames at the ballot box before. In 1988, Ron Paul found himself abandoned by George H.W. Bush’s conservative critics and the more libertine Libertarians, something that could easily happen to Barr as well. And if Barr does throw his hat into the ring, expect his imperfections to be rehashed endlessly.

But in a depressing election year where there are few good choices for traditional conservatives and libertarians, a Bob Barr presidential bid may be the best available option. Bar none.

W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.


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