Campaigns/Elections

Who Isn't Trying to Take Over the Libertarian Party?

Scenes from the LP's most newsworthy convention in years

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You see right there, in between the cameras? Under the boom mike, in front of the fetching female interviewer in the cowboy hat? There's Bob Barr, holding court and basking in the glow of the national political press. When Barr walked onto the exhibit floor of the 2008 Libertarian Convention, a trail of six campaign staffers followed behind him—the kind of showy political operation that gives outsiders the impression that the former Georgia congressman is the obvious frontrunner in the race to head up the biggest third-party challenge in this year's presidential campaign.

A few feet away in the Denver Sheraton, Barr's opponents are shaking their heads, sharing "can-you-believe-this" looks. "Talk to some delegates, already!" says Jim Casarjian-Perry. A Massachusetts delegate for candidate George Phillies, Casarjian-Perry had, moments earlier, pinned Barr over whether he sticks by all the propositions of the Defense of Marriage Act, which Barr authored. Casarjian-Perry lives in Massachusetts, is married to his partner, but is unable to change his new, hyphenated name on his passport or driver's license. He wasn't at all satisfied by the purported frontrunner's answer.

"Barr doesn't understand basic libertarian principles," Casarjian-Perry says. In Phillies, this delegate (an elected city government official) sees a candidate who's laying the groundwork to elect libertarians who do understand those principles. "If [Barr] makes it to the final ballot," he says, "I'm ready to vote for none of the above."

It would be a bit much, right now, to call the 2008 Libertarian nomination fight "heated" or "bitter." The delegates trickling in to Denver, ever-aware that this city hosted the embryonic stirrings of the party 36 years ago, are happy to see each other. They're gorging on free food, face-to-face conversations with people they've known only online, and brainy discussions that aren't so easy to come by back home.

Still, there's a battle gearing up, and not just over the headline fight over who will win the nomination. Two years ago, the self-described "reform caucus" of the party took over a convention in Portland and shaved the platform from 61 planks to a pocket-sized 15. The non-aggression principle in the party's declaration survived, but only narrowly. Even before Bob Barr entered this race, radicals, who estimate they have one-third of conventioneers firmly on their side, were planning to use Denver to "Restore '04" and resurrect the older, more far-reaching platform.

The specter of a recent Republican transplant leading the LP has cranked up this platform fight to 11. A flyer labeled "CALL TO ACTION: The Libertarian Party—Not For Sale!" is being distributed around the Sheraton, spelling out a six-point theory of the right-wing takeover strategy. "The Barr campaign's principals are veteran 'partyjackers,'" says the flyer. Smoking gun? The appearance at the convention of conservative direct mail pioneer Richard Viguerie, who is filling a speaking slot that was once going to go to radio host Neal Boortz. "If [Barr and Viguerie are] successful, the Libertarian Party will become just one more mouthpiece for malcontent Republicans."

The rumors are unstoppable. A supporter of candidate Steve Kubby hears that close to 150 new party members crawled out of the woodwork to register Thursday. "They're Barr delegates," he speculates. "When they hold the vote to expand the number of delegates, vote 'no.' You see them trying to give the vote to someone you don't know, vote 'no.'" The story that someone is push-polling for Tucker Carlson to enter the race at the 11th hour is getting more laughs than anything else, but it jibes with the spirit of the moment. Hey, who isn't trying to take over this party?

The beneficiary of all of this, for now, is the soft-spoken and generally beloved candidate Mary Ruwart. As Barr fielded a mix of harsh and softball questions from delegates, Ruwart walked around the Sheraton finding fans. "No one is happy about the tone," Ruwart says. "I was at the 1983 convention [where the party split over the nomination of David Bergland], and it was so spiteful and destructive that I was almost done with the party." It took decades of running unity campaigns to make her optimistic again. The pre-convention attack on Ruwart's anarchist position on child pornography, and the tone of the campaign since then, has worn on her. "This might be more heated than 1983," Ruwart says. "I hope it won't be." (Copies of Short Answers to Tough Questions, the book with the passages that started the controversy, are still on sale at Ruwart's convention booth.)

The Barr campaign doesn't want a bloodbath either, which is why it's trying to out-organize and out-argue the skeptics. Barr's floor campaign is certainly the most sophisticated, which doesn't surprise many people here. From an upstairs suite, headquarters cranks out flyers, keeps track of delegates, prints drink tickets, and collates the tokens needed to get into the official Saturday night debate. The value proposition of a Barr candidacy is taking hold.

"I want us to broaden the base," says one Texas delegate and reform caucus stalwart. "I've been a Ruwart fan for a long time but she can't do that. But Barr can get 3 to 5 percent of the vote and make McCain rue the day he stopped being a conservative." Wyoming party chair Dave Herbert simply wants to "get some votes," and Barr or Wayne Allyn Root offer the best prospects for his dream of an election thrown into the House of Representatives.

This segment of the party—the ones who care first and foremost about electoral punch—worry that a debate over ideological purity will wreck their momentum. Talking to Whitney Gravel, whose recently Democratic husband Mike's bid is beset by some of these same gripes, Americans for Prosperity's Richard Burke developed a theory. "The purists don't want a political party as much as they want a church," he said. "They need a place to worship."

At the end of a first-night mixer, two delegates who'd heard all the negativity tried to stay positive. "One thing you can say is that the top five, six candidates this time are all better than the three we had last time," said one. The second delegate swirled his drink and agreed. "I don't think Gravel's really a libertarian, but it says something that he joined the party. We nominate one of these guys, build on that, and get an even better field next time." The two then started chewing over perennial dream canddiates, Gary Johnson and Ed Thompson.

If that's the attitude that catches on among LP delegates, it will get harder and harder for the party not to nominate the Georgian heretic surrounded by all the cameras.

David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.

Bonus video: On Tuesday, May 20, reason hosted a debate about "The Future of Libertarian Politics" featuring LP presidential hopefuls Wayne Allyn Root, Mike Gravel, and Bob Barr (Mary Ruwart was invited but unable to attend). Video excerpts of the conversation are below (approximately 10 minutes long). For more information, go to reason.tv.

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  1. The specter of a recent Republican transplant leading the LP has cranked up this platform fight to 11. A flyer labeled “CALL TO ACTION: The Libertarian Party-Not For Sale!” is being distributed around the Sheraton, spelling out a six-point theory of the right-wing takeover strategy. “The Barr campaign’s principals are veteran ‘partyjackers,'” says the flyer. Smoking gun? The appearance at the convention of conservative direct mail pioneer Richard Viguerie, who is filling a speaking slot that was once going to go to radio host Neal Boortz. “If [Barr and Viguerie are] successful, the Libertarian Party will become just one more mouthpiece for malcontent Republicans.”

    This leads me to believe that the left are already in full tilt to try to take the LP over.

    Nice try Gavel…but i suspect you are not going to win.

  2. One thing you can say is that the top five, six candidates this time are all better than the three we had last time…

    Personally, I don’t think any of the 14 candidates running this time are as good as the top three last time.

  3. What’s with the anonymous quotes in this article? It’s not like any of these people were saying anything particularly controversial. This stinks of lazy reporting.

  4. Day One:
    The smell of body odor and spoiled tuna hangs heavily in the hall. Even after leaving the convention hall and showering several times, I couldn’t get the smell out.
    Pumice doesn’t help either.

    I made the mistake of making eye contact with one of the attendees who used the fact that I looked at him as an excuse to walk up to me and tell me that he didn’t have any friends. I “accidently” spilled some coffee on myself before the conversation could get any more in depth, and excused myself to go to the bathroom. Unfortunately, my ruse didn’t work as he followed me to the bathroom, asking me if I knew any women he could talk to.

    As he was asking, I looked across the bathroom to see an unrecognizable man, twisted into a state of depravity and desperation. Moments later I realized I was looking at my reflection in the bathroom mirror.

    Screw you, Reason, for sending me here
    -David Weigel

  5. As could be expected, Weigel didn’t ask any questions. Maybe someone else there could ask Barr about this. He’s not looking too good to the wider community.

  6. Lonewacko is shilling for Ruwart?

    Now I’ve seen everything.

  7. If the LP wants to make a splash this year, then Barr is obviously the guy. But afterward? I wonder what the longer term goal is.

  8. Over the nearly 20 years I have been involved with the LP, I’ve came to learn what lousy tacticians that organization generally attracts.

    Okay, so Bob Barr isn’t philosophically pure as the driven snow. However, he can bring the LP much needed media attention and credibility among voters. One the LP can garner that attention and credibility, they will be able to more likely attract dream candidates such as Gary Johnson. Unfortunately, many can’t seem to grasp that basic concept.

  9. The LP is the loser party.

    Let them continue to support loser unknown candidates.

    The LP in NH would not even endorse Ron Paul when Badnarik himself did right from the start on February 24 2007.

    The LP has been hijacked by left-wing liberals who think that the more you bash religion, the more you take drugs and the more you advocate for prostitution, the more you play into the hands of the UN with foolish ‘secession’ schemes that suck right up to this world government garbage, that you are somehow more ‘libertarian’.

    This is nonsense. The LP has ruined the name of ‘libertarians’.

    Ron Paul’s RLC is where it’s at. There is nothing wrong with TRUE Republicans.

    The true Republicans, such as the kind found in NH are in no way related to the policies that have been pursued by the Bush administration and thus should not be judged by that.

  10. The SNL skit that sums up this whole primary season
    Get These Latest Designs
    Bill wants Hill as Veep
    This and more on…

    http://sensico.wordpress.com/

  11. Great article. For short interviews on Day 1 of Bob Barr and other candidates and delegates, visit http://www.joeypanto.com. I’ll be looking to interview all the candidates and many delegates as the convention rolls on. One thing to note: Bob Barr does not have a lock on the nomination despite the high-end pyrotechnics. At the David Nolan speech last night, Mary Ruwart got the biggest applause when David requested an unscientific applause poll on the top 6 candidates. Bob was 2nd loudest, but the others weren’t far behind.

    to be continued…

  12. The advantage of being in a party that has absolutely no chance of getting elected is that you can spend all of your time arguing about the “intellectual purity” of your candidates.

    That is also precisely how you remain a party that has absolutely no chance of getting elected.

  13. The true Republicans, such as the kind found in NH are in no way related to the policies that have been pursued by the Bush administration and thus should not be judged by that.

    The 28% of the remaining Bushnecks would argue that they are, in fact, the “true” Republicans and that the likes of you are standing in the way of Christian sharia’ and total world conflict led by contract Blackwater mercenaries.

  14. At the David Nolan speech last night, Mary Ruwart got the biggest applause when David requested an unscientific applause poll on the top 6 candidates.

    You’re scaring the pant(o)s off me there, Joey… I hope a bunch of the Barr delegates skipped Nolan’s speech in favor of hanging out at the hotel bar(r)…..

    thanks for the link, too.

  15. Prediction: Barr will win prexy nod and Ruwart the veep nod, if she wants it. The after-election challenge will be to integrate and educate the (hoped for) hoards of Ron Paulites and others Barr should attract. And accomplishing that little task will require the
    best organized Chair with a vision for future success.

  16. On Tuesday, May 20, reason hosted a debate about “The Future of Libertarian Politics” featuring LP presidential hopefuls Wayne Allyn Root, Mike Gravel, and Bob Barr (Mary Ruwart was invited but unable to attend).

    Really? I got an email from a Ruwart supporter saying she wanted to attend the “debate” (more like a Q&A session than a debate), but she WASN’T invited, and that Reason’s top staffers have been trying to influence people in favor of Barr.

    Perhaps some one else from Reason can verify Ruwart was invited, maybe post the email inviting her?

  17. “The purists don’t want a political party as much as they want a church,” he said. “They need a place to worship.”

    This guy hit the nail right on the head. With that said, the party would claim an even greater percentage if they threw their weight behind Ralph Nader’s campaign but what would be the point?

    3-5% of the vote means nothing if the guy nominated isn’t the mouthpiece for the party, and its Barr’s job to convince the purists that he is. Sounds like he’s failing to do so, and is just trying to intimidate and seem larger than life so they nominate him out of awe at his presence.

    That isn’t going to work.

  18. Prediction: Ruwart will win the Nomination.

  19. How well do you think a Barr/Paul ’08 ticket could do?

  20. i’m still mad i can’t find any ’87 race- russell means/ron paul debate videos on youtube, dammit. (wth? what kinda party doesn’t have a debate and film it for posterity) so i can’t even wrap my mind around the current libertarian race.

  21. This is the only place I can get day by day reports. Thanks, Reason!

  22. How about Bob Barr/Drew Carey as a ticket in ’08?

  23. I you must have Barr on the ticket, you need extreme balance to correct where he utterly fails as a libertarian, and that can only mean a Barr-Gravel ticket.

    While both of them fail at purity, it would also create the most entertaining ticket the LP has ever put together.

  24. The LP nomination may decide who wins the presidency. Not that the LP canidate has a shot in hell. But the following is true:

    If Barr is the LP nominee, it hurts McCain a lot. If Ruwart is the LP nominee, it hurts Obama a little bit.

    Net result, if you want John McCain to be president and have a vote at the LP convention, vote for Mary Ruwart. If you want Barack Obama to be president, vote for Bob Barr.

    This is the extent of the LP’s influence over the election, especially if half the party doesn’t actually want to win elections but just have a “church where they can worship”, as Gravel’s wife put it.

  25. “The purists don’t want a political party as much as they want a church,” he said. “They need a place to worship.”

    And there’s nothing wrong with that. The big waste of time and energy would be purists and pragmatists spending more years fighting over control of the Libertarian Party. We pragmatists would be better off starting our own party. Let the two approaches to libertarian politics compete.

  26. I guess your view on the Barr candidacy depends on your goals for the LP. If you are content being seen as a fringe party and not a serious contender, then by all means keep your mind closed to Barr. If you want a chance for LP to finally be seen as a major player and a viable option to voters in future elections, then jump on the Barr bandwagon. He is a nationally known name with a solid political record and that is more than any LP candidate has been able to say, ever.
    Voting LP is still seen by mainstream voters as “throwing your vote away” even thought the World’s Smallest Political quiz would place the majority squarly in LP beliefs. So what is more important to you? Bringing LP into public view as a legitimate option and not just a fring throw away vote or sticking to your guns as a fringe element that may never be taken seriously by the general public?

  27. I worry that candidates-come-lately will, if any of them wins the nomination, drive the final nails in the LP’s coffin, just as Pat Buchanan’s campaign effectively killed the Reform Party. The good news is that the LP doesn’t have the honey-pot of matching FEC campaign funding that attracted Buchanan and others to the RP. But it does have ballot status, which is a potential threat to the two major parties, and which a colossal failure this year (minuscule vote total in comparison with high hopes generated by nominating a celebrity candidate) could help erode or eliminate.

    It is interesting to view the LP convention and nomination process through the eyes of the Demos and GOP, who seem to use the Green and LP parties in fighting a proxy war, much as the US and USSR did with various middle-eastern or central american states in the mid-to-late 20th century. So many people seem to care about what is better or worse for the Demos or GOP in various nomination scenarios. Very few seem to care about what is best for the LP. Indeed, a commonly expressed opinion — especially at Reason H&R — is that the LP is irrelevant (except as an occasional proxy, perhaps) and should cease to exist. This attitude also parallels attitudes about our middle-eastern or meso-american proxies of the past century. I was put off by such attitudes then, and I am put off by them now. I hope the delegates will think carefully about what is best for the LP as LP, and do what they can to further such ends. Whatever they do is going to play into the hands of one of the major parties, but so what?

    I would like to see our new converts earn their stripes and establish their libertarian bona fides. Is it possible that all of these people with great connections and prior political and campaign experience could put their egos aside for the good of the country and support a ticket comprised of real, well-established libertarians? Could they get behind an effort to make the LP a real force this year, instead of merely a vehicle for their own vanity candidacies? Instead of a one-shot candidacy that might burn out the party altogether, they could build an organization that would provide better opportunity for them next time, while perhaps having enough strength this time to get media attention and inject libertarian issues into the remaining debate.

    Pay close attention to who behave as long-term builders vs. who behave as short-term carpetbaggers or tools of Coke and Pepsi. Hopefully the delegates will be able to sort a lot of this out in the time they have remaining.

  28. Barr or Wayne Allyn Root offer the best prospects for his dream of an election thrown into the House of Representatives.

    Uh, wouldn’t that require the LP candidate to actually win a state? Does he seriously think that’s possible, even if Jesus himself was the nominee?

  29. Prediction: Ruwart will win the Nomination.

    Ugh. That happens and I don’t vote for the first time in my adult life. I don’t want to vote for another Badnarik.

  30. Reason’s top staffers have been trying to influence people in favor of Barr.

    Yeah, right. Weigel’s been the main one writing about this stuff, and he’s always working to downplay the idea that Barr is inevitable.

  31. James Anderson Merritt | May 23, 2008, 4:24pm | #

    Indeed, a commonly expressed opinion — especially at Reason H&R — is that the LP is irrelevant

    True. In it’s current makeup, it appears no LP candidate can ever win a partisan election, therefore, it is irrelevant. I can’t think of a single instance where an LP candidate, running under the LP banner, has won ANY office. LP members have been elected to city councils and water boards and the like, but always when the election was non-partisan. Other third parties have had candidates win-Ventura in Minnesota for Reform, and the Greens won a seat in the California state legislature (she eventually switched to be a Dem).

    and should cease to exist.

    False. It should reform itself in a less fringe manner, so it potentially can win elections. If it is not willing to do that, perform political compromises so it can win elections, then it’s not really a political party, is it? It’s merely a debate club, or a “church to worship at”.

  32. Been a libertarian for longer than there’s been a Libertarian Party. Never liked the idea of a “Party.” If you want a political party, one with the goal of winning elections, start one and name it Herbie’s party, or whatever.

    If you want to spread the libertarian philosophy, work within the two existing parties and actually accomplish something better than selling out the reason we call ourselves libertarians.

  33. Jack | May 23, 2008, 7:16pm | #

    Been a libertarian for longer than there’s been a Libertarian Party. Never liked the idea of a “Party.” If you want a political party, one with the goal of winning elections, start one and name it Herbie’s party, or whatever.

    If you want to spread the libertarian philosophy, work within the two existing parties and actually accomplish something better than selling out the reason we call ourselves libertarians.

    Exactly. There are “Libertarian Democrats” and “Libertarian Republicans”, but they are rather rare. Primary those that don’t qualify, and be a bit flexible with the definitions.

    For example, the most “Libertarian” Democrat in the Senate is easily Russ Feingold, although now 75% of the people reading this are going “but but but McCain/Feingold” the moment they read his name. Ignoring that, and look at his entire record: He voted against the War in Iraq, the Patriot Act, renewal of the Assault Weapons ban, censorship of the Internet and elsewhere, and pork of all sorts, from the “bridge to nowhere” to the earmark for the Woodstock museum. No other senator voted against all that stuff (admittedly a cheat, because no other senator voted against the Patriot Act, period, but even subtracting that and my statement is still probably true).

    If Congress was filled with Russ Feingold clones, the country would be a much better place. But most the brains of most libertarians shut down at “McCain/Feingold” and refuse to see the overall picture.

  34. I’ve read two reports so far and I personally think our author is pulling a fast one. His reporting is not entirely accurate in my opinion and he is pushing his own agenda. I’m not seeing the same convention he is. This now makes me question all the other stuff he has written in the past. But his descriptions simply don’t jive with the convention I’m attending as a non-delegate who can’t vote for anyone but who is watching with great interest. My conclusion is that this is really bad reporting.

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