Three Hits and a Miss

The Libertarian Party debate elevates Barr, Kubby, and Root, while Ruwart underperforms


The timing was perfect. Presidential candidate Mary Ruwart, a favorite among the Libertarian Party's Radical Caucus, was 15 minutes into a hard-hitting speech and Q&A with delegates at the contested LP convention in Denver, and she'd just finished enumerating what it is she couldn't stomach in a prospective running mate. In short, she couldn't stomach Bob Barr. As if on cue, Barr's twang exploded over a next-door soundsystem.

"All right!" he said, whooping up dozens of his cowboy-hatted delegates. "Are we ready to go?"

Ruwart's face froze into a devious, oh please kind of smile as Barr briefly addressed his throng. Fired up and ready to go, he marched them past the exhibit area and over into the main convention hall to deliver delegate tokens guaranteeing Barr a place in the Saturday night debate and a nominating speech at the Sunday presidential contest. As the procession went past, Neal Stephenson, a supporter of longshot candidate Christine Smith, loudly sang John Williams' "Imperial March," the song playing when Darth Vader enters the room in Star Wars.

Jim Peron, working the Laissez Faire Books table, opted for less subtlety. "Fuckin' traitors!" Peron yelled. "Go back to the GOP!" As Barr's crowd entered the hall, Peron joined in a burst of sarcastic applause and cheers. "Hooray!" yelled a phalanx of delegates. "They're leaving the convention!"

Barr, of course, was not leaving. When the 1 p.m. deadline for the LP debate came, the former Republican congressman delivered 94 tokens to win inclusion. Mary Ruwart and Wayne Allyn Root handed in exactly as many tokens. Barr and Ruwart, though, had both passed a few of their tokens to friends they wanted to see make the debates (in Barr's case it was Mike Gravel; in Ruwart's it was Steve Kubby). Barr's decision, in retrospect, seems like a strategic coup. Ruwart's decision is harder to game out at the moment.

What actually transpired at the "C-SPAN debate" surprised most of the delegates I talked to afterward. With a few exceptions, their reaction was four-fold: Root, brash and funny, looked more than ever like an effective cheerleader for the LP. Kubby, against all odds, stole the show again and again. Ruwart, poised but bland, underperformed the expectations many delegates had for her. And Barr, faced for the first time by his fellow candidates and a puckish moderator, thrived under the pressure.

Every chance Barr got to finesse or apologize for one of his past Republican mistakes?the Defense of Marriage Act, the PATRIOT Act, the drug war?he grabbed with both hands. The only direct hit he sustained came from the audience, after Barr referenced the "tens of thousands" of innocents serving time on drug charges. A voice from the back of the room cried out, "How many did you put in there?" But the debate rolled on.

Barr was able to thrive because of a rule that was little-noticed outside of candidates' headquarters. Personal attacks, which had flown back and forth throughout the week in alternative debates and speeches, were semi-off-limits. If one candidate challenged another by name, the attackee had 30 seconds to respond. So the closest thing to candidate swipes at Barr were the occasional nameless allusions by George Phillies to a political action committee (PAC) that "gives to libertarians," plus Steve Kubby's glancing reference to Barr voting for the PATRIOT Act. If you weren't aware that Barr's PAC spreads cash around to the big two parties, Phillies' attack wilted on arrival.

The by-a-nose frontrunner benefited, too, from the rollicking performance of Kubby. The marijuana activist only made it to the debate with an assist from Mary Ruwart's extra tokens, but had told delegates throughout the day that as long as he could get on stage, he could win the nomination. In fact, he might have done well enough to surge into the top four.

Kubby scored the biggest laughs of the night. After comparing government intervention in the environment to "the fox guarding the chicken coop," he said: "I'm a libertarian! The only way I'd accept that is if the chickens are armed!" And Kubby powerfully reminded delegates why the medical marijuana issue is not some fringe or abstract concern: "I've gone to jail for liberty. I've nearly died for liberty!"

As much as Kubby soared, Ruwart sputtered. All weekend long, she had been the primary beneficiary of a backlash against "Republican converts." But in the debate she mixed rote libertarian answers with over-the-top claims of political power, such as her vital role in "fighting the PATRIOT Act." (Even though Barr voted for the Act in 2001, Ruwart let him pivot to his verifiable claim that he allied himself with civil liberties groups since then to roll the law back.) Again and again, and in a press conference after the debate, she claimed that disappointed Hillary Clinton voters looking for a female candidate would gravitate to her. Leaving aside the fact that Cynthia McKinney might win the Green Party nomination, the Libertarian Party is a terrible place for gender politics. "That's not how we want to appeal to voters," said Virginia delegate Aaron Sime.

Three of the other candidates failed to break out. Phillies appealed to his long-running campaign organization and party credibility, factors that will become irrelevant as soon as the party hands its torch to one of the candidates. Michael Jingozian gave one of his best performances in a year of campaigning, but sounded out of his depth, unfamiliar with the Tragedy of the Commons, musing about electing other third party candidates in addition to Libertarians. Gravel had too many opportunities to share his less libertarian views, compensating a few times by repeating his mantra: "Freedom, freedom, freedom!" ("He's not all the way there yet," went a common post-debate refrain.)

It was Wayne Allyn Root who most complicated Barr's plans. Root's vein-throbbing, high-decibel TV-pitchman's answers divided the crowd, but by far the larger segment thought he stood out in a party that has opted for drab candidates since anyone can remember. Not since Ron Paul shouted down meatheads on the Morton Downey Jr. Show has an LP candidate radiated such energy. After the debate, in a sprawling hospitality suite stuffed with free drinks and troughs of Italian food, Root complained that it was agonizing to sit down for two whole hours. "I'm a prize fighter!" he said. "I need to move around!" Manny Klausner, a longtime Reason Foundation trustee and former reason editor who is giving Root's nominating speech, thought that his candidate won the test of delegates imagining their candidate making the Libertarian case on TV. "You don't want a lecturer doing that job," Klausner said. "You need a cheerleader."

As the campaigns scattered to talk and party with delegates, the conventional wisdom calcified. Barr staff, who have never expected to win on the first ballot, worried about surviving a three-way race between still-beloved Ruwart and stronger-than-ever Root. Kubby supporters started dreaming of a longshot win. Libertarian Party co-founder David Nolan, who has been supporting Kubby, was seen in the hospitality suites saying that Kubby and Root were on the rise. Michael Cloud, the long-time activist who's still controversial for his role in the Harry Browne campaigns, rushed to Barr's suite to give him advice on floor management … then teleported to Root's suite to check out the other star.

Ruwart's supporters, as they had the night before, waved off the expensive suites and gathered in The Supreme Court, a hotel bar with a live funk band. "Look, she's not a thrilling candidate," said a California delegate. "She's a candidate who won't make us look bad or drive us even further to the right." And that's the paramount concern for Ruwart backers, many of whom wear buttons with Barr's named crossed out. They know what "pragmatic" party leaders want. They've watched the party platform continue to shrink in length and boldness. They saw party Treasurer Aaron Starr and some Ohio delegates turning red as Starchild, the mono-named concubine for California, gave media interviews in a tie-dyed unitard and floppy psychedelic top hat festooned with a feather boa. Late at night, free from the party's schoolmarms, Starchild took boozy snapshots with giggly girls in cocktail dresses, and bumped and grinded with hotel guests.

"Give it up!" said the band's bassist when Starchild temporarily shimmied offstage. "Give it up for Austin Powers!" Hey, these people are used to being misunderstood.

David Weigel is an associate editor of reason. Read his first two dispatches from the LP convention here and here.

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.