The Libertarian Party Stays the Course

Reports from a political convention full of both surprises and the status quo


"We fight for freedom, which everyone wants, so why are we nowhere?" asked Libertarian Party (LP) presidential nomination hopeful Aaron Russo to a room of 30 or so supporters and potential supporters at the 2004 Libertarian Party National Convention in Atlanta on Saturday. On Sunday, he won the first and second ballot for the nomination, only to lose the third.

Russo, a former Bette Midler manager and Republican gubernatorial candidate in Nevada, fought an explicitly anti-status quo campaign within the LP, and lost. This might help answer his question. His loss represents, I would posit, a general sense on the part of the dedicated LP delegates that they are reasonably happy with the LP the way it is and has been. All they want is to see someone out on the campaign trail saying the things that they believe in, in a style they are comfortable with. The results can take care of themselves—and they usually do.

What the 808 delegates who met in convention assembled over Memorial Day weekend voted for fit in with my previously presented theory of third parties like the LP as consumption expenditures—something people support just because they enjoy it, not necessarily to win elections or change the world. A certain narcissism seemed at work in the delegates' selection of hard-traveling Austin-based former computer programmer and freelance lecturer on the Constitution Michael Badnarik as their man, after he arrived as a distant third in a field of three major contenders: The delegates voted for the man who was the most like them, who presented in the most professional way the modal opinions and views and style of a Libertarian Party activist—quiet, intense, no deviation from the catechism, more concerned with eternal ideological and philosophical verities than the political events of the day. As to whether that is the best strategy to win lots of money, attention, and votes in a national presidential campaign, well, we'll know come November.

The convention was held in the Marriott Marquis in downtown Atlanta, a hotel sporting a cool wide-open atrium with pill-capsule elevators climbing and descending the outside of the central shaft. The convention meeting hall, breakout session rooms, vendors and info booths, and candidate headquarters were all within about 40 yards of each other, if that far, and decent food selections were just up an escalator, making for a smooth experience for delegates and press alike. It was the loveliest and most user-friendly convention facility I've seen the LP nab (with 2000 and 1998 my previous experience), and the agenda ran tightly and on-time.

For libertarians obsessed with putting their best foot forward for the C-SPAN cameras, there were, as always, small moments that doubtless struck normal Americans as curious (if any normal Americans watch C-SPAN). For example, very dark horse candidate Jeff Diket (a blind man) excoriating the delegates assembled for wasting their potential by endorsing abortion (certainly, no party has gotten anywhere in this country with such a radical stance as abortion rights) and shooting themselves in the foot by "shouting for alcoholic beverages" (though it was unclear whether he is looking to steal the glory of the Prohibition Party for the LP).

Then there was indefatigable San Francisco libertarian activist Starchild visually letting his freak flag fly, alternately appearing in druid's robes with staff, a tight silver half-vest and short shorts with pink platform boots and fairy wings, and some straightforward leopard-skin drag. This sort of acting out doesn't win the hearts of many libertarians fearful about what the folks back home will think—having not yet concluded that their political ideas are usually quite enough to turn off most voters, San Francisco outrageousness notwithstanding.

One of the bigger controversies going into the convention was over the invitation of an Iraq War booster, Atlanta-based radio talk show host Neil Boortz, as a breakfast speaker. While "boot Boortz" buttons were spotted here and there, no organized protest interrupted his speech. Boortz chose to talk about eminent domain violations, an issue that he believes will somehow succeed for the LP and resonate with more voters than, say, medical marijuana (an issue that tends to be quite successful and often victorious when real voters get a chance to consider it).

Boortz has his own answer to Russo's question about why the LP has gone nowhere. He told the rapt breakfast crowd on Saturday that by reimagining themselves as the party of property rights and a national sales tax, rather than the party of drug legalization and eliminating occupational licensing, they'd reach heretofore-unknown heights of success and acclaim. (Showing perhaps not as much retail political acumen as he pretended, he also openly posited that most people in this country are just too stupid to handle freedom.)

The exhibitor booths were a fair representation of what makes libertarian hearts sing: books on politics, economics, and philosophy, the Free State Project, public policy activist and education groups, and the Liberty Dollar. A one-sheet handed out by a seemingly bitter Liberty Dollar salesman complained that libertarians are less likely to embrace his privately minted silver and gold coins than an average American. (I suspect this is because many libertarians, already very sensitive about how they are perceived, are more likely to find alternative hard currency schemes too kooky to touch. An average citizen, though, with no superego involved, might just think it's a pretty cool thing to have real hard metal money in hand.)

Speakers and exhibitors took a back seat to the main business: the contested presidential nomination. Unlike most political conventions, this one featured genuine political drama—and a shock ending. Coming in, the nomination was considered a tossup between former radio talk show host Gary Nolan and former Hollywood producer (and Nevada gubernatorial candidate, where he won 26 percent of the vote in a four-way Republican primary, a very impressive political resume in the world of the LP) Aaron Russo.

Badnarik, who had been driving around the country visiting libertarians locally in a '99 Kia Sophia with the help of dedicated sidekick Jon Airheart, a former University of Texas student impressed with Badnarik's ability to sell the libertarian message retail, was thought of as a distant third at best. At times, as both Badnarik and Airheart told me, they'd find themselves with less than 10 bucks cash in the campaign kitty as they sold Badnarik's lectures and book and kept sending out e-newsletters asking fans in cyberspace for funds just so they could gas up and drive to the next town, the next state convention, the next campus lecture.

As of the beginning of April, his campaign—which he began on President's Day 2003—had collected around $33 thousand, compared to Nolan's $99 thousand as of the beginning of May. (Nolan had been filing with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) monthly to Badnarik's quarterly; Russo, who only started running in December, had no public FEC filings on their Web site.)

From my canvassing of delegates, I found a fair amount of "absolutely not Russo" feeling, and almost no such negativity toward either Nolan or Badnarik. (Other floor workers assured me there was a fair amount of "No way Nolan" attitude, but these are the perils of unscientific polling—I encountered none until after he had lost.) That, combined with the general feeling that he was the front-runner, with a late-entering Russo as the up-and-coming challenger, led me to predict a second-ballot victory for Nolan, with a near victory on the first ballot. (A straight majority of the delegates was required for victory.)

Instead, after what everyone called a clear victory for Badnarik in the Saturday night debate, Badnarik came in a very close second on Sunday's first ballot at 256 votes, with Russo in the lead with 258 votes, and Nolan a surprising third place at 246. After the second ballot, with the minor candidates dropped and Nolan losing again, it was down to Russo and Badnarik, with Russo 36 votes ahead on that second ballot. (The other announced candidates, including the fiercely anti-abortion Diket, were not invited to the candidate debates. When someone tried to take the mic and complain about this discrimination to the whole delegate floor, he was ignored. It would have provided a moment of delicious irony if an LP rep had to explain publicly that, well, you see, it really would just be a waste of time to include in a public debate these weird fringe candidates who had no proven interest or support from most of the people watching the debate and, well….)

Russo was winning, but he was not to win. He had a style that some delegates from the South and Midwest fretted would not sell back home—brash New York ethnic, throwing around the word "baby," cracking jokes, grabbing floating balloons and nuzzling them, then mock-complaining that one of his vocal opponents would probably call that sexual harassment, openly announcing he had no intention of being polite in what he called our war against our own government, segueing from a mention of orgasms to introducing his wife. He swore he'd disrupt any presidential debate he wasn't invited to with civil disobedience; he called the U.S. "imperialistic" freely; he was very concerned with eliminating the Federal Reserve and talked about it anytime he had an opportunity; and he proudly and loudly admitted to having smoked pot.

Russo was abrasive and occasionally outrageous, but to me, charming. At least he exhibited a style no previous LP candidate had really tried. And if there's one thing the LP seems to need after 30 years of failures and on a downhill trajectory, it's something it hasn't tried. Russo already had TV ads running on big networks in the Atlanta area—he was the first LP candidate ever to get a TV campaign rolling pre-nomination. He vowed that short commercials pushing an anti-war and anti-draft message would be where most of his campaign cash would go. He had already paid for some professional polling from Rasmussen that showed 19 percent support if people knew he was the only candidate who would end the war.

Still, it was clear to most people with a sense of the floor that his first place showing on the first two ballots was it for Russo. Roughly speaking, most Nolan voters would not have minded voting for Badnarik, and vice versa. But many of them had very bad feelings about Russo. "Loose cannon" was the phrase I heard most often—they simply were uneasy with his style and thought he'd embarass them.

He made a few major flubs for this crowd during the debate, openly scoffing at the general tort law approach to environmental damage that many libertarian embrace, boldly using the word "fascist" to apply to the American corporate/government nexus, and saying that he'd have no problem using military force in a "police action" undeclared by Congress to, say, track down perpetrators in the wake of a 9/11 style attack. Nolan made no such mistakes; neither did Badnarik, and apparently Badnarik struck most delegates as more professional, assured, and convincing when presenting the catechism than Nolan. (None struck me as showing much ability to defend libertarian ideas to an audience to whom they weren't already second nature—for example, a facility in acknowledging, while countering with anything other than platitudes, the non-libertarian ideas that currently dominate policy debates. Then again, public policy does often require more than three minutes to explain.)

After the debate, Badnarik tells me, an impressed supporter offered up his room Saturday night as an impromptu Badnarik hospitality suite. Badnarik himself was too tapped out even to afford a room at the upscale convention hotel, driving in instead from a Days Inn across town. This gave him a chance to talk to more delegates face to face, and it won the nomination for him.

Now the LP has as its candidate a great Cinderella story—a man who quite literally was not expecting or prepared to win. He was out of money, had no campaign staff besides the loyal Airheart, and could afford so few signs that between the second and third ballots newly minted Badnarik lovers had to use bumper stickers to convert now-useless Nolan signs into custom-made Badnarik signs. A day later, he's candidate for president of the United States, with a possibility of being on more ballots than anyone other than Bush and Kerry. He's spent the past three days trying to put together a professional staff, and tells me he's gathered at least around $10 grand in campaign funds since winning the nomination, which will allow him to hit the road again and keep spreading his version of an uncompromisingly Constitution-based libertarian message. One of his pet slogans: "The Constitution: It's Not Just a Good Idea. It's the Law."

But what will it all avail? Badnarik's sincerity and dedication are impressive, and his come-from-behind tale irresistibly charming, but he was the least impressive of the LP's choices in terms of real-world accomplishments of the sort that might make media or non-committed voters take him seriously. But he is, his supporters assure me, a natural-born teacher. Whatever he's good at, he teaches, from scuba diving to sky diving to computer technology to first aid to the Constitution. On the retail level, as he proved on the LP convention floor, he can sway outcomes surprisingly.

Ohio and New Hampshire, one LP operative tells me, are states where the LP candidate could very realistically cost Bush the election. (All that sort of talk is naturally premature, but a race close enough where small margins in certain states could sway the election seems quite probable now.) The national LP is proudly trumpeting spoiler possibilities in press releases. They point out that gubernatorial victories for Democrats in Wisconsin and Oregon in 2002 and a Democratic Senate victory in 1998 in Nevada could be reasonably "blamed" on Libertarians.

Sure, helping Kerry beat Bush will win attention for the LP—but is it the kind of attention they really want? A Bush loss that is verifiably the LP's "fault" (based on the presumption, ridiculous but sure to be embraced by many, that every single LP vote actually "belonged" to Bush) will, I predict, be more likely to kill the LP by a mass defection of anybody-but-a-Democrat types when faced with the stark reality of O God, what has the LP done? than it would be to catapult it to a higher plateau of serious and respectful attention.

Despite some cavils by Russo partisans that nominating someone with as little background, money, or prospects as Badnarik was a suicidal move for the LP, its future will doubtless be far more lively and significant on the local, state, and congressional level than the presidential; Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) has proven that libertarianism as hardcore as it gets can reach Congress and stay there. Of course, it has so far had to fly under a different party label, which raises a difficult question that most hardcore Partyarchs don't want to deal with—might it not be better for even the most radical libertarian to launch his political career small, and as a Republican?

What won it for Badnarik? He said it to me himself in a brief pre-nomination interview: he thinks that "libertarians are thrilled to have a candidate express their message in the way we feel it in our hearts." He doesn't slick it up, try to bend it to fit current popular concerns, or try some flashy or emotional way to sell it. He just presents it, unvarnished, in a historical, constitutional context that appeals to hardcore libertarian activists who like to feel linked to an American tradition. He is politically savvy enough that he doesn't spend much time in this campaign context discussing some of his outré beliefs regarding the technical legality of such tyrannies both major and petty as the income tax and driver's licenses.

But he seems honest enough that if opponents ever call him on these peculiarities, he is certainly apt to explain why he thinks the way he does. In some ways, the LP's obscurity has been good protective cover for it; a concentrated opposition assault from Bush or the media could hurt Badnarik in the public's eye. His running mate Richard Campagna, a multi-degreed attorney and foreign language interpreter from Iowa, promised a focus on a "mainstream" libertarianism; Badnarik's selling point is being sincerely and radically libertarian, and let the mainstream flow to him. "When I finally made the decision to run for office," he tells me, "several friends came up and cautioned me I'd have to modify my message and soften it so as not to scare voters. I said, if they want to vote for a modified message they'll have to vote for Democrats and Republicans. That's how we got in this philosophical dilemma in the first place. The libertarian message is pure. Sometimes when I talk I tell people this is the way I see it, and if you don't like that, you are not required to vote for me, but I must be true to my heart. I can't try to be phony."

No one who knows Badnarik well would suggest for a second that he doesn't mean every word of that.

As one longtime LP watcher told me after the stunning result, on one level it was clearly for the best. Nolan and Russo were both selling the proposition that they would run the most aggressive and professional campaigns. If they were such great campaigners, how is it that Badnarik, unable to afford even a bed, much less hospitality suites or strategy rooms at the Marriott, beat them?

Still, the skills it takes to win over a majority of the 808 LP stalwarts who travel to attend a national convention are very different than those needed to attract the media, or the million or so voters that the national LP is always dreaming of. (Let us not even talk about winning, lest accusations of enthusiasm bordering on insanity descend.) Badnarik has a message that is detailed and philosophical and based on his self-taught understanding of the first principles of our country. He presents it with folksy metaphors and without flash or irony or anger, in a manner that mentions the Constitution far more than it mentions policy. Badnarik has the right libertarian views on, say, the war and nonintervention, but he much prefers talking about interesting Constitutional minutia like letters of marque and reprisal than expressing Russo's angry passion about the empire America has become; much more likely to mention the Founding Fathers than to mention his opponents in this election; more likely to talk about the preamble to the Constitution than the Patriot Act. He does, he tells me, hope to get a draft-oriented wave of TV ads going, but it is not yet certain whether he'll have the money to get them widely seen.

Badnarik has a very libertarian message about restricting the government strictly to its explicitly Constitutional duties, a message that LP delegates loved to hear; but his natural tendency is to deliver it in a style far more legal, philosophical, and historical than political in an everyday sense. But he is the kind of man and has the kind of message that LP activists can relate to comfortably. It remains to be seen, given his past and where he's starting from in terms of money and publicity, if anyone except people attending his speaking events will get to hear what he has to say. The LP, as always, has its work cut out for it. And its hardcore devotees don't seem to want it any other way.