Moviegoers who walked into last year's surprise blockbuster Borat were treated to images of naked male wrestling, the attempted kidnapping of Pamela Anderson, and something truly surprising: an interview with former Republican congressman Bob Barr of Georgia. The joke in the 30-second clip was supposed to come when the faux Kazakh journalist offered Barr a slice of cheese with a disgusting origin. But the real punch line came at the start of the segment, when Borat introduced Barr as a "party official from the ruling regime."
Even before the GOP lost control of Congress in November, no one confused Bob Barr with a loyal supporter of the "regime." After the eight-year Republican congressman was ousted from his seat in 2002, Barr refused to fade away: He became one of the most vocal political opponents of the PATRIOT Act, secret surveillance programs, and many other post-9/11 extensions of executive power.
On December 18, the distance between Barr and the regime grew larger. The Libertarian Party announced that he had taken a lifetime membership and accepted a leadership role in the party, representing its membership in the southeastern United States.
"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," Barr told me the day his move was announced.
"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."
Barr has stunned conservatives before—for example, when he cushioned his fall from Congress by taking an advisory role in the American Civil Liberties Union. But joining the Libertarians was simply too much. "Don't let the door hit you [on the way out]," wrote David Hogberg at the website of The American Spectator, a conservative magazine where Barr is a contributing editor.
Bruce Bartlett, the supply-side economist who famously dubbed George W. Bush a conservative "impostor," pointed Barr to the woodshed. "People are free to do what they want to do," Bartlett wrote in his syndicated column, "and if they want to join the Libertarians, that's their business. But if their goal is to actually change policy in a libertarian direction, then they are making a big mistake."
Barr obviously disagreed. His agitation outside Congress wasn't having much of an impact on the GOP. But neither were the efforts of elected Republicans who agreed with Barr. The closest any Republican came to winning a civil liberties victory was when Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter held hearings about the Bush administration's warrantless wiretap program. And Specter's revolt collapsed: His proposed reforms basically would have legalized anything the executive had done. If there was any recent moment when the GOP provided hope to libertarians, it escaped Barr.
"Where you have government that doesn't obey laws of this nation, we have a problem," the former congressman told me. "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."
But is Bob Barr the best mechanism for building the Libertarian Party? Before 9/11 changed the issue map so drastically, many libertarians knew Barr primarily for his strong support of the war on drugs. The 1998 Barr Amendment blocked implementation of a D.C. medical marijuana initiative that 69 percent of voters supported (according to exit polls) by prohibiting the D.C. government from spending any money "to conduct a ballot initiative which seeks to legalize or reduce the penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substance Act."
The national Libertarian Party ran a TV ad against Barr in that final 2002 campaign that featured Cheryl Miller, a multiple sclerosis sufferer and medical marijuana user, pleading for Barr to stop trying to put her in jail. When Barr lost, the party whooped it up over beating "the worst drug warrior in Congress."
Immediately after Barr's party switch was announced, he said the drug issue hadn't come up in his discussions with the party. "I'm not going to let minor disagreements come between us," he told me. "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."
"It's an unusual juxtaposition," says Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Here's someone who seems to hold deep libertarian principles, but he has a blind spot a mile wide on the drug war."
It's not completely clear how big the blind spot is these days. In a late December interview with the Phoenix-based radio host Charles Goyette, Barr said he was "very supportive of the concept of legitimate testing for the use of medical marijuana" and "disappointed that the government has stood in the way of that"; he also indicated that states should be allowed to determine their own policies regarding the medical use of cannabis. That's at odds with what he has said before, and it might be a sign that his views on drugs are evolving. But it's still a long way from the full-fledged legalization of drugs urged by his new party. Although his public position may be changing, he and the Libertarians are still an awkward fit.
Unless Barr's switch to the Libertarian Party represents something bigger. As libertarians discovered over decades of political warfare, the drug war was a unique rallying point. For some people, it's the sole reason they became libertarians. It was also a deal breaker for many who agreed with libertarian positions on taxes or public schools or motorcycle helmet laws but thought the government had a moral responsibility to keep drugs off the streets.
"Throughout the '80s and '90s the drug war was the principal justification for reducing civil liberties in this country," Nadelmann argues. "On September 11, the drug war was superseded by the war on terror as the new rationalization for curtailing civil liberties. That's what changed."
One issue hasn't eclipsed the other. While many libertarians are hoping Barr will change his views on the drug war, that might not need to happen. As Barr says, every successful party (or political movement) includes swarms of allies who don't agree on key issues. The issue that finally pulled Barr into the Libertarian Party—civil liberties during the war on terror—happens to be one of the starkest, most controversial fissures in American politics. If every voter who distrusts the government to respect his liberties were to follow Barr into his new political home, the GOP and Democrats could start holding their conventions in high school gyms. That won't happen, but the parties have a reason to be worried about libertarian voters for the first time in a long time.
"There's a downside," says Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform. "You get more attention as a former Republican congressman criticizing the Bush administration than you do as a Libertarian." For people like Norquist, who joined Barr in the conservative PATRIOT Act reform group Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, it's not clear that a Libertarian Barr can have the same influence as the Republican Barr. Not even if his key issues are so crucial and so controversial. Not quite yet.
"On the other hand," Norquist adds, "the Libertarian Party has always needed more practical leadership. Maybe it's like that scene in Young Frankenstein where the scientist swaps part of his brain and the monster swaps another body part. It can be good for both of them."
David Weigel is an associate editor of Reason.