Libertarian Party Provides McCain With Strong Conservative Opposition

As I reported yesterday Bob Barr overcame considerable opposition by some Libertarian Party members to the non-libertarian candidates running to win the nomination on the sixth ballot. Barr spent much of the convention apologizing for his past votes such as for the Patriot Act. He won the nomination on the sixth ballot after Wayne Allyn Root threw his support to Barr, receiving the vice presidential nomination in return.

By going with the conservatives, as opposed to second place Mary Ruwart, the Barr/Root ticket will have far more impact on the general election than virtually any other likely outcome and does have the potential to draw votes away from John McCain in conservative states. In contrast, Ruwart would receive much less conservative support and her nomination would have led some conservative libertarians to bolt the party and vote Republican.

There is a common misconception among those who have not followed the libertarian movement that the Libertarian Party and supporters of libertarianism are equivalent. The Libertarian Party was actually formed with considerable opposition from libertarians, many of whom feared that entering politics would make the Libertarian Party increasingly indistinguishable from the mainstream politicians. The party has often been more conservative than consistently libertarian, with influence in the party varying over the years.

Tim Lee presents the view of many libertarians in writing yesterday:

Today the Libertarian Party nominated Bob Barr as its presidential standard-bearer for 2008. I’ve got a love-hate relationship with the Libertarian Party. As a small-L libertarian, I typically find the major party options to be wretched, and this year’s options are especially bad. So it will be nice to have someone on the ticket who I can be reasonably sure will mostly take positions I generally agree with.

Unfortunately, the LP has a knack for picking candidates who are not just uninspiring, but often acutely embarrassing. The 2004 candidate, Michael Badnarik, was a low point. As I wrote at the time, despite billing himself as a “constitutional scholar,” he was completely clueless about American government. His speeches and interviews were chock full of assertions that could have been corrected with 30 seconds of fact-checking, and his overall message was that of a paranoid, government-hating crank.

And because presidential elections are virtually the only time a lot of people pay attention to politics, a lot of people wind up associating libertarianism, the ideology, with whomever the LP chooses to nominate every four years. And since the LP’s candidates are often clueless, politically tone-deaf, or otherwise unappealing, small-L libertarians get stuck trying to explain that, no, most libertarians aren’t for legalizing child pornography, and no, not all of us have turned our skin blue by drinking a “homemade antibiotic laced with silver.”

Bob Barr isn’t in the same category. He understands the basics of public policy and appears able to get through an interview without embarrassing himself. However, he seems to have a whole different category of baggage: questions about whether he’s actually a libertarian. During his tenure in Congress, Barr showed few libertarian tendencies, voting for the Defense of Marriage Act, opposing medical marijuana, and signing on to the Patriot Act. I saw him speak here in Missouri last year and he gave a pretty convincing Road to Damascus speech, but libertarians are justifiably suspicious.

Personally, I’m doubly wary of supporting the guy after the Ron Paul fiasco. Like Will Wilkinson, I gave money to Paul in 2007, before I learned of his continuing association with the bigots who sent out racist newsletters under Paul’s name. In retrospect, Paul’s anti-immigration rhetoric and his tendency toward conspiracy theories (“Wall Street bankers” are a staple villain in his stump speeches) should have been red flags that temperamentally, Paul was more a conservative nationalist than a libertarian even if he happened to have reached libertarian conclusions on a lot of policy issues.

The issue section of Barr’s campaign website makes me nervous that we’re in for a repeat of that fiasco. It’s incredibly thin—a dozen or so bullet points in total—and one of the four categories is “secure our borders,” which suggests Barr may harbor the same kind of borderline xenophobia that has infected both the Paul campaign and much of the modern conservative movement. That’s not the impression I want voters to get of libertarianism.

Ultimately, I wish the LP would just go away.

Barr’s history as a conservative Republican are already well known. His running mate, Wayne Allyn Root, does appear media savvy and I suspect he will help pull in conservative libertarian votes. Root’s web site is full of pictures of conservatives such as George Bush, Jeb Bush, Karl Rove, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, and his “hero,” Ronald Reagan. As with far too many libertarians, while it appears Root personally supports abortion rights he calls it a State’s Rights issue. Such attitudes of conservative libertarians on State’s Rights have been a major reason why I do not consider them consistent defenders of individual liberty. Rights, if they are to mean anything, originate with the individual, not the state. Federalism, while often a major aspect of conservatism, is inconsistent with libertarianism as infringements upon individual liberty by state governments is no more acceptable than when done by the federal government. At times the federal government has even been instrumental in fighting infringements upon liberty emanating from the states.

In the past Libertarian Party candidates have had difficulty exceeding one percent of the vote. As a consequence of the publicity from the Ron Paul campaign and having a conservative ticket which can compete with John McCain for the support of conservative Republicans, they might do far better. Having a strong conservative opponent on the ballot might also prevent John McCain from moving as far towards the center as he would like during a general election campaign.

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