From the outset, Bob Barr’s Libertarian run for the presidency was fraught with great expectations.
For many Libertarian Party members, the former Georgia congressman was a living hope, an actual experienced politician with a national reputation and real fundraising experience who could finally beat both fundraising and vote totals for the perennially beleaguered party in its 10th presidential campaign. It was the year of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), after all, and there was also a GOP candidate, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was largely mistrusted by the small-government (and social conservative) right. Visions of $30 million spun in libertarian heads; expectations soared to include a million LP votes counted on election night.
It was a new dawn for the LP, former national executive director and Barr campaign higher-up Shane Cory told Atlanta magazine. The folks who had dominated the party in those long, lonely pre-Barr years, he said, “had changed it from a political party into a debating society. It was the church of Libertarianism. I’m not saying that in a condescending way. But we’re turning it around. This is a more pragmatic approach.”
Well, for an approach Cory frames as pragmatic, it didn’t really work. It’s all over now, and Barr failed as both fundraiser and candidate to even approach those high early expectations. The total money raised was $1.2 million; total votes came in at 510,000.
Now, the backbiting and, as Barr media consultant Audrey Mullen put it to me last week, the intra-libertarian “circular firing squad” may begin.
If one did want to spin the results postively, it can rightly be said that Barr managed to get the second highest raw vote total of any Libertarian presidential candidate ever. However, if you recast that in percentage terms, he was only 4th, behind not only raw vote-champion Ed Clark in 1980, but also Ron Paul in 1988 and Harry Browne in 1996.
To be sure, we’d be having this same discussion about recrimination and failure regardless of who the LP nominated—though Barr's opponents for the nomination would not have inflated expectations so much. I heard plenty of anecdotal evidence describing hardcore LP activists so disgusted by Barr’s right-wing past (and, in their reading, present) that they sat out doing any volunteer work, providing donations, canvassing, or even voting for him; I heard some LP watchers assume that because of these anecdotes, Barr only got about half the straight LP vote that a candidate more congenial to the party's hardcore would have received, and that the rest of his votes must have come from right-wingers disgruntled with McCain. (For their part, Barr campaign workers blame Obama, or at least McCain's ability to frighten right-leaning voters of him so much that even if they liked Barr better, they felt they had to tactically vote GOP.)
But such anecdotes come from a few dozen people who are intimately familiar with the decisions of maybe a couple of dozen more people each, and with no one surveying actual LP voters to parse out their actions and decisions scientifically, we’re all trying to capture a wraith: We just don’t know how many of the LP’s traditional core voters decided to sit out 2008 or maybe go Baldwin (or Nader).
But even in the beginning, the LP was filled with people who doubted Barr’s ability to perform—and what’s more, they thought that even if he did approach those high vote totals, he’d still be a liability to the LP, since his candidacy would link the party with a set of watered-down right-wing stances, not true libertarianism. One of the leading movement watchers who believed this, Thomas Knapp, summed it up this way: “In terms of vote totals, his failures put him firmly in the LP ‘usual’ pack. In terms of effect on the Libertarian Party, he probably set us back 20 years.”
One area of reasonably unequivocal success for the Barr campaign came in high-level media coverage, with either profiles or at least one story in USA Today, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and many others prominent papers, as well as appearances on The Colbert Report and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, a fair number of repeat performances on CNN and other cable news outlets, and even a NBC Nightly News segment. The campaign itself told me last week they planned to compile a full list of media and personal appearances any day now; but media consultant Mullen, who worked with the campaign during its first half, tells me she’s sure she booked over 300 substantial TV and radio slots.
But all that free media didn’t help much in the end. Complaints about Barr’s performance within the LP world can be roughly divided into three categories, which in turn may have affected the vote totals he got (or didn’t get) in various ways:
1. He wasn’t libertarian enough. From the beginning, he was attacked for being too federalist and not enough of a libertarian on matters such as the drug war and gay marriage, being insufficiently emphatic about non-interventionist foreign policy and getting out of Iraq, and too right-wing on matters like border security. Many in the LP distrusted him as a carpetbagger from the beginning, and little about the way he conducted his campaign calmed down such detractors. Barr’s Leadership Fund PAC, for instance, gave money this go-round to many GOP candidates who were directly fighting LP ones.
He issued press releases with tender reminiscences of Jesse Helms, called for stronger border security, and offered a federalist defense of the Defense of Marriage Act—one of his legislative accomplishments—as the very heart and soul of libertarianism. His very last press release as a candidate, curiously, commended federal prosecutors for investigating financial firms.
Whether or not that’s the sort of government action that even a libertarian can support, it was a very strange choice as a press release—issued on the day before the election, no less. When Barr talked about the bailout at length on TV, he tended to stress not so much thoughtful explanations as to how government policies, from Fed interest rate manipulation and inflation to encouraging subprime mortgages, might have helped create the crisis; instead, he stressed prosecuting fraud and enforcing the laws already on the books, and other such claptrap.
While Barr could be sharp on the need to withdraw from Iraq, when asked to make a big statement on the problems the U.S. faced in the world on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, he didn’t mention war, peace, overstrained overseas commitments, or empire. He instead gave a weird peroration on how the real problem is that we’ve lost influence in the world and need to improve our ability to enforce our will and “protect our interests” worldwide.