Bob Barr, Unbowed

An interview with the Republican congressman turned Libertarian Party leader


At the end of last week, former Republican Congressman Bob Barr roiled the political waters with two announcements. The first: He had left the Republican Party and become a life member of the Libertarian Party. The second: He was going to do more than pay party dues. As of December 15 Barr is the representative of Region 4 of the Libertarian National Committee, helming the party in Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and his own native Georgia.

Barr spoke with reason over the phone on Friday, after making the announcements.

reason: Why did you join the Libertarian Party, and why did you agree to take this role?

Bob Barr: I suppose one reason is I was asked by two individuals I respect. One is Bill Redpath, the national chairman, and the other is Executive Director Shane Cory. I know both very well. When they asked me to consider it was very important to them. And I chose to join the Libertarian Party because at this time in our nation's history, it's fundamentally essential to join a party, work with a party, that's 100 percent committed to protecting liberty. As great as the Republican Party is—and I have been fortunate to work with that party for many years and still have the highest regard for it—the Constitution is under such assault in this day and age. In order to have any chance of saving the Constitution and our civil liberties, we need a party dedicated to that cause.

reason: In 2002, the Libertarian Party called you the worst drug warrior in Congress. No hard feelings?

Barr: To be honest with you that's never come up in our discussions. I'm not going to let minor disagreements come between us.

But you haven't changed your mind on the drug war, or on gay marriage? [Barr sponsored the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.]

Barr: There are going to be differences with my colleagues in the Libertarian Party. I can't imagine there is ever going to be a party I agree with 100 percent of time. What I'm interested in is a party honestly committed to liberty and true checks and balances on government power. That's something lacking in our current party system. With regard to gay marriage and the Federal Marriage Amendment, in my view the FMA does nothing except to protect liberty of citizens of each state on what basis they want to recognize marriage. Are there some libertarians who believe differently? I'm sure there are, and I'm sure we'll engage in some debates down the road. I'm not going to let nuanced differences on aspects of particular policies stand in the way of the most important mission. That's ensuring our liberties and protecting the Constitution.

reason: You endorsed Libertarian candidate Bob Smither in Tom DeLay's old House seat, and went down there to campaign for him. What did that experience teach you?

Barr: I very much enjoyed meeting him; I hadn't met him until I went to Texas to appear at event in his behalf, although we talked extensively on the phone to discuss his campaign. He was a very good candidate running for his seat in right way. If we can field a lot more candidates for the right reasons, and we develop mechanisms to develop and hone their campaign skills, I really believe we can win some of these races.

reason: But do you have any optimism that Libertarians can win when Smither couldn't?

Barr: Yes. Over the last couple of years, and definitely during this election cycle in particular, there's been a great number of Americans who are disappointed in both major parties. And they're hungry for a new approach, a new party, as it were, truly committed to substantive ideas, and not just to getting elected and focusing on their particular election cycles. There are a lot of Americans out there who feel similarly, and this can be a party that is reaching out to those folks, with a message of relevance to American voters.

As a former Republican congressman, do you worry about the spoiler effect? Republicans have blamed the Libertarian vote for siphoning off support and electing Democrats in Montana and Missouri's Senate races.

Barr: What I fight for, and what the Libertarian Party fights for, is liberty and freedom. In this past election cycle I don't think the Republican Party can blame its defeats on anybody but itself. There were serious concerns voters had with the record of the Republican Party over the last couple of years—the war in Iraq, the prosecution thereof, the scandals. Their losses had nothing to do with whether there was a Libertarian or another candidate in the race. It was the Republican Party; that's why those candidates lost. And some of the losers were my very good friends. To blame your loss on another candidate is—well, you can go back to what the Bible says, about concentrating on the splinter in your neighbor's eye instead of the long board stuck in your eye.

Why join a third party instead of switching to the Democrats?

Barr: Actually, I've been very pleased to listen to some of the things some of the Democrat leaders are saying. I liked Senator [Patrick] Leahy's [D-Vt.] pronouncement just the other day that as incoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee he is going to work on the restoration of checks and balances and on restoring civil liberties. He'll look into the NSA spying, and the PATRIOT Act, and other issues. That's good, and I hope to be part of that process. But if you're looking at the broad range of issues the Democrat Party is involved other than civil liberties, there are too many differences.

reason: Is there anything in your former party that's worth saving?

Barr: It's not just civil liberties, but how liberties are governed. Where you have government that doesn't obey laws of this nation, we have problem. When you have an administration that decides it doesn't have to review the decisions of our courts, we have a problem. When you have a Congress exerting no leadership in terms of oversight, we have a problem. The party in power was not providing a solution to those problems. I've concluded that the Libertarian Party is the best mechanism for solving them.

If you succeed in your new role, where you see the Libertarian Party in 10 years?

Barr: I'm not going to predict the future, but I see in the Libertarian Party what I've been looking for a while now: A party founded firmly in principles of freedom that devotes its entire resources to accomplishing to those ends. And I want to move those principles forward in a well organized way.

Are you going to make a Libertarian run for president?

Barr: No. I'm contemplating no runs for any office. I'm delighted to be asked to work in this capacity for the Libertarian Party, and I'm going to work on range of issues. But I'm not a candidate.

David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.