Citizen Bob

How Bob Barr and Wayne Allyn Root took over the Libertarian Party


The Bob Barr campaign couldn't have plotted it any better. The former GOP congressman-turned Libertarian Party contender announces his candidacy two short weeks before the LP convention, and grabs more free media than 2004 nominee Michael Badnarik received in a year. He arrives in Denver amid bellyaching and heckling and a sea of "Mary!" stickers, and gets reporters talking about the drama of a deadlocked Libertarian convention. C-SPAN stays glued to the proceedings for all of Sunday, through six ballots that turn out closer than the results of an Olympic track meet. And when it's all over, Barr gets both the nomination and a running mate, Wayne Allyn Root, whose views comport comfortably with Barr's own.

The results may have been ideal for Barr, but they weren't plotted out that way. Early in the balloting on Sunday, Barr's strategists—and the candidate himself—thought the Radical Caucus might have beaten them. The boos and catcalls that came when Barr supporters staged a whooping march around the convention floor were louder than they expected. The 25 percent Barr scored on the first ballot was lower than everyone expected. "The Barr campaign needs to be a steamroller to win this," Steve Kubby strategist Tom Knapp said early in the day. "They needed to win 40 percent to keep people from peeling off."

Barr didn't steamroll, instead grinding out a series of ties with radical favorite Mary Ruwart before the Las Vegas businessman Root dropped out and sent his support Barr's way, wrapping up the nomination.

Here's how Barr/Root won the nomination:

A Changed Party. The groundwork for Barr's win started building after the 2004 debacle, when Michael Badnarik ran an underwhelming purist campaign that satisfied no segment of the party. An estimated 2,000 people left the LP then, and activism dropped off substantially. The strongest anti-Barr candidates, Kubby and Ruwart, were old faces who'd run for the vice presidential nomination in 2000 and 1992, respectively. Ruwart had also run for the presidential nomination in 1984.

Mea Maxima Culpa. Barr could not have won if, like fellow major-party defector Mike Gravel, he'd jumped into the party right before the convention. Instead the Georgia congressman once famous for prosecuting the impeachment of Bill Clinton built credibility with the delegates by being able to refer to his two years in the party. When he mentioned this fact in his debate performance and pre-vote speech, some of the less-active delegates who'd been surfeited with anti-Barr rumors of "hijacking the party" were surprised. Barr complemented with a few staged "road to Damascus" moments in front of the delegates; standing up at the debate and apologizing for part (not all) of the Defense of Marriage Act, claiming he wished he'd joined the LP sooner. "I may not have committed as early as y'all," Barr said in his nomination speech, "but don't cast me aside because I'm a latecomer!"

The Media Drip, Drip, Drip. The press helped Barr in two ways. It was obvious even to Barr's enemies that the media had more interest in him than in anyone else; Mary Ruwart's pre-speech montage of clips, which included the iffy likes of a Longevity Magazine cover story and "Libertarian says return tax dollars" clips from previous unsuccessful runs for office, made Barr's exposure look that much more impressive. Then, Ruwart took a pounding from the media that even her throatiest backers couldn't ignore. LP activist Barry Hess could dismiss Barr as a creature of "the old media," but by the time delegates were voting on the fourth ballot, The Washington Times had run a story on the convention that mentioned Ruwart's unforgettable argument about child pornography, and whispers were flying around the convention hall.

The Lackluster "Stop Barr" Movement. Barr's enemies printed a series of fear-mongering leaflets for delegates, one going after his un-Libertarian voting record, another painting an Orwellian future of the party re-branding as "New Republicans" if Barr won. But they didn't do the harder work of digging through Barr's un-Libertarian statements, which in fact multiplied as he did his pre-convention media tour. The impact of, say, a YouTube video splicing together Barr's waffling answer on Hannity and Colmes about drug legalization, his comment that Republicans would split their tickets for him (voting against lower-ballot Libertarians in the process), and other heretical stuff could have been devastating. As it happened, there was no compelling, real-time evidence for delegates to contradict Barr's humble convention persona.

Fair Play. All weekend, the convention swirled with rumors that a crush of Barr delegates would show up at the 11th hour to rig the vote. Over 1,000 delegate slots were open, and less than 650 had registered by the end of Saturday. The word was out for other campaigns' delegates to deny credentials to latecomers. In the end Barr's campaign took advantage of a few empty slots in Southern states, but that was matched by the arrival of a few Ruwart and Kubby supporters who signed up to stop Barr. "It was a legitimate victory in the sense that there was not significant packing," said party co-founder David Nolan, a Kubby supporter, "and what packing there was came from more than one camp." Barr campaign manager Russ Verney said that his team only brought around 50 delegates to Denver, and won the rest of their support in the Sheraton, via one-on-one campaigning and arm-twisting.

With Enemies Like This…. Fringe candidate Christine Smith did Barr a favor by using her allotted, post-elimination speaking time to rant and rave before a national TV audience about Barr's "neo-con" conspiracy. Plenty of delegates had become familiar with, and repelled by, Smith's self-aggrandizing rudeness and all-around weirdness. Ruwart until that moment had been gaining strength by appearing a victim of public bullying and LP-trashing by Barr supporters. But for the crucial 15 minutes of Smith's rant, Barr seemed like a victim himself of people who were making the whole party look bad.

The Ghost of Losers Past. Anti-Barr (and, to a lesser extent, anti-Root) campaigners never convincingly argued that some other candidate could get more votes in November. The closest anyone came was Mary Ruwart's theory that disenchanted Hillary Clinton voters would be casting about for a woman to vote for, but that reeked of liberal gender politics and alienated as many people as it won over. The Barr-or-Ruwart choice was not zero sum: It was between a square peg candidate who could get a record number of votes and a round peg candidate who would probably get the 300,000 to 500,000 votes that the party has won since 1984. Ruwart's ill-advised Sunday leaflet, advertising endorsements from 1984 candidate David Bergland (228,111), 1992 candidate Andre Marrou (291,627), and 2004 candidate Badnarik (397,265), only emphasized that point.

What didn't help Barr? The 11th hour endorsement of oddball Daniel Imperato clearly didn't. After Imperato backed Barr, his sole supporter from Arkansas voted for Imperato on the first ballot anyway. On subsequent ballots, he backed Mary Ruwart. The much-discussed support for Barr in the national party probably cut both ways. It helped Barr that national officials considered him the strongest candidate. Former executive director Shane Cory worked for Barr on the convention floor, and at Sunday's victory banquet, party chairman Bill Redpath reminisced about bringing Barr into the party, waxing: "I've been saying all along we're going to have a hell of a presidential ticket this year." But all of that support just strengthened the resolve of the anti-Barr contingent. "If the nomination was stolen," David Nolan said, "it was stolen in the national office."

But even Nolan, the strongest and most-respected voice in the anti-Barr camp, was optimistic about the ticket once the dust settled. He could see Barr/Root drawing a Nader 2000-like 2 million votes; his worry was simply that Barr, like Nader, wouldn't follow through with party building after the election, thus wrecking the LP. Party unity, which was hard to find amid the raucous boos of Sunday, started to evolve a few hours after the ballots were counted. There was talk of Barr endorsing Steve Kubby, who narrowly missed the VP slot, for a 2010 run for governor of California.

And there was startlingly optimistic talk of the party banding together to prevent Republican efforts to kick them off ballots. Why was that optimistic? Because this year the LP finally has a candidate that could swing the election.

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