The hot news among online Libertarians, of course, is former GOP Congressman from Georgia Bob Barr joins the Libertarian Party and is elected to the national Executive Committee.
For more coverage, check the AP story here, the discussion at Third Party Watch here, and the story at Reason Magazine Online here.
This is especially interesting because, only four years ago, the Libertarian Party took credit for throwing Bob Barr out of office, a move celebrated by some and regretted by others on grounds of freedom.
During his eight years in office, Bob Barr remained more or less true to the Contract with America that brought him and a host of other Republicans into Congress. He fought with consistency for smaller government, balanced budgets, and restraint on the power of government. However, he did not do this from the position that smaller government is always better. Purist Libertarians point out- quite loudly, in the discussion on the above links- that Barr was a sponsor of the Defense of Marriage Act. He voted for the USA-PATRIOT Act. Worst of all, he was an aggressive zero-tolerance drug warrior, even defending a ban on hemp rope because it might contain trace amounts of THC... and it was for this sin that the LP targeted him in 2002 with attack ads that may, or may not, have cost him the Republican nomination in the 2002 Georgia primary.
The purists and anarchists in the party are screaming that the election of Bob Barr to the committee that runs the national party is a sign that the "Party of Principle" has abandoned its principles. To the contrary, I say- Bob Barr's advent to the Libertarian Party is the best news this party has had all year.
First, let's look at Barr's positions, as shown in this December 2003 interview. Bob Barr has openly come out against USA-PATRIOT, saying he voted the wrong way on that issue. He hasn't changed his mind openly about gay marriage yet, but he defends his vote there as a state's-rights issue- he supported the bill only so that states would not be forced to recognize gay marriage, not to outlaw it completely. That's disingenuous, considering the Defense of Marriage Act comes as close as any federal law can to doing just that, but at the least his justification shows he's paying attention to the Libertarian position on the issue. As for the Drug War, rumors fly that Barr is preparing to do a one hundred eighty degree turnaround on that issue... but nothing's solid as yet.
But so what if he doesn't?
The fact is that civil liberty activists like Bob Barr- who has worked quite often with the ACLU to fight government overreach- are precisely the kind of people we need to persuade if the Libertarian Party is to build its own political base.
According to a recent Zogby poll, most self-described libertarians don't vote for Libertarian Party candidates. Here's the number crunch: according to Zogby, fifteen percent of people who vote have a political belief set that classifies them as libertarians. In 2006, these people voted 59% for Republican candidates for Congress, 36% for Democrats, and only 5% for everyone else combined- Libertarian, Green, Constitution, whatever. This means that at most the Libertarian has, among its core base, only 5% support maximum- which leads to a support in the overall electorate of less than 1%. Sound familiar?
There are four reasons for this. First and foremost is the perception that Libertarians cannot win election. There's next to nothing we can do about that directly. Second, there are massive obstacles to Libertarians even making it to the ballot- which might well artificially shrink the numbers in that poll I just mentioned. There's not much we can do there either, except lobby for lowering ballot access restrictions. Third, too many of our nominees are outright nutjobs. Although we could use None of the Above much more frequently, laws don't allow us to turn away candidates outright in most places, so we can't do too much there either.
The fourth reason, however, we must do something about. A lot of people who agree with us as much as 80% of the time won't support us because they disagree VERY strongly with that last 20%. People who want lower taxes, smaller government, and greater freedom may well take the choke at auctioning off all public roads to the highest bidder, declaring unilateral free trade with all nations, abolishing all government social programs, endorsing secession, defending the individual's right to own nukes and anthrax, etc. etc. etc. We need these people's support to get anything at all done... but the purists in the party cling to ideals and principles above all and demand that moderate libertarians either "become educated to the truth" or else keep the hell out of the party.
Now let's look at the other two parties. The Republican Party tolerated people such as Lincoln Chaffee and Olympia Snowe because, without them, conservative and neo-conservative goals could not be achieved. Without pro-choice Republicans in certain areas, the Republican Party would have no power at all; with them, Republicans can make advancements on other issues, such as war powers, tax policy, and social issues. Likewise, the Democratic Party embraced errant son Joe Lieberman and former Republicans Jim Webb and Bob Casey for the same purpose. Although Lieberman is pro-war, and both Web and Casey anti-abortion, without them Democrats would be unable to block anti-abortion judges to the Supreme Court or to advance Democratic issues such as a higher minimum wage.
Long story short: you don't have to agree with everything to get things done. In fact, if you insist on total agreement on everything, you get nothing done.
Bob Barr doesn't necessarily agree with everything the LP has stood for in the past. He doesn't have to. If he fights for greater freedom, if he works to get Libertarians elected, that's all we need. Barr has experience in WINNING election campaigns and firsthand knowledge of what a political party does in support of its candidates. He'll make a very good Executive Committee member- and an even better public fact than we've had in the past.
And if we want to expand our political base from less than one percent to fifteen percent- and more, if we want to elect people- we need to moderate our positions. We need a platform that doesn't call for anarchist utopia. We need concrete proposals that strengthen liberty without bringing about chaos and panic. Finally, we need spokespersons who focus on practical solutions to popular issues, rather than people trying to convert people to the religion of anarchocapitalism.
Bob Barr is such a person. He almost certainly wouldn't win an election for us as a candidate- even if he were running, which he says he isn't. His expertise as a politician, a legislator, and a public speaker will be invaluable to getting other candidates elected, though. This is a vital opportunity for us... and no one dedicated to getting Libertarians elected should throw it away by either bolting the party or driving Bob away.