Look Who's Coming in Third!

With Bob Barr's nomination, the Libertarian Party is threatening to achieve historical relevance.


Never in the history of the Libertarian Party has an idea been executed so smoothly as the nomination of Bob Barr, a former Republican congressman—and former drug warrior—from Georgia. True, it took six ballots at the party's national convention in Denver to nominate the man. True, the weekend before that vote was a marathon of rumors, threats, and twisted arms, with younger, more radical party members pitted against an old guard that included party founder David Nolan. But the ruckus culminated in the nomination of the most well-known and politically astute presidential candidate in party history. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the only other former congressman to run for president on the Libertarian ticket (in 1988), had already made 2008 a banner year for libertarian politics by launching a limited-government revolt in the Republican primaries. The question: whether Barr is poised to continue what Paul began.

Barr's campaign—and the possibility of a revitalized national Libertarian Party—will likely have more of an immediate electoral impact than Paul's did. The Republican Party, after all, is teeming with antibodies that have been able to fight off the diminishing libertarian virus within. Unless lightning struck, the heavens opened, and he stumbled upon the Ark of the Covenant, Paul was never going to win the GOP nomination. It wouldn't take much, though, for Barr's popularity to force John McCain to campaign in states he thought he had wrapped up, or even to swing one of those states into the Democratic column. The Libertarian Party has its greatest chance to affect a presidential election in 28 years.

In 1980 the Libertarians seemed on the verge of becoming a major party—not a replacement for one of the big two but a third bloc, like the Populists of the late 19th century. But the organization stagnated in 1983 after a bitter nomination fight prompted the supporters of losing candidate Earl Ravenal to leave the party. Its members occasionally won minor local offices or made up the vote difference in close elections between Democrats and the GOP. But in presidential elections, the party nominated a series of movement stalwarts who would be denied entry into the presidential debates, tour the country talking to the faithful, and be rewarded with fewer than 500,000 votes.

(The partial exception was Ron Paul, who, like Barr, had to overcome criticism that he was a carpetbagging conservative. But the Paul of 20 years ago was more obscure outside the libertarian movement than either he or Barr is today. And he didn't crack the 500,000-vote ceiling either.)

In 2004 the party basically punted. Bitter enmity between presidential front-runners Gary Nolan and Aaron Russo led to the nomination of dark horse Michael Badnarik, a freelance constitutional scholar who hadn't been filing tax returns, didn't have a driver's license, and believed prisoners on death row should instead be bound to their beds until their muscles atrophied. Around 2,000 members quit the party. Two years later, a rump of 303 delegates—less than half the number that had shown up to nominate Badnarik—met at the party's biannual convention.

These delegates pruned the party platform from 61 planks to 15 and elected the pragmatic Virginia party official Bill Redpath as chairman. Their mission, they said, was to make the Libertarians a true third party, upsetting the ossified GOP and the ever-objectionable Democrats with a credible candidate and campaign. All of this was in the works well before Barr joined the party in December 2006 and well before Paul's run caught fire in the summer of 2007.

The Paul rEVOLution encouraged these post-Badnarik reformers, but it also encouraged their opponents within the party. The radicals saw in Ron Paul proof that they too could spark a national phenomenon based on extreme-sounding ideas. Medical marijuana activist Steve Kubby decided to run for the nomination but promised to quit the race if Paul won the Republican primaries. Mary Ruwart, a Libertarian activist with two and a half decades in the party, organized for Paul until John McCain locked up the GOP nomination, then announced her own run for president to carry on Paul's legacy. "If the Ron Paul Revolution votes en masse for…L.P. candidates," Ruwart wrote, "the L.P. will receive an unprecedented number of votes."

The reformers agreed with this message, if not the messenger. They worried that yet another idiosyncratic or unknown candidate would pick up the ball Paul left downfield and spike it. The oxygen for libertarian politics in 2008, they believed, was coming from conservative voters sick of the big-government corruption of Republicans. So they drafted recent convert Barr, whose list of not-long-ago libertarian heresies, including a vote for the PATRIOT Act and authorship of the Defense of Marriage Act, was too long for even his most vitriolic opponents in Denver to keep track of.

But the reform faction took a chance, casting Barr and another ex-Republican seeking the Libertarian nomination, Las Vegas odds maker and relentless self-pitchman Wayne Allyn Root, as apostles rather than opportunists. If these men could be convinced that the Libertarian Party was viable, the argument went, surely they could convince their former fellow travelers.

Two days before the vote, an anonymous trickster passed out satirical press releases announcing that Barr, Root, and their allies in party leadership had renamed the Libertarian Party the New Republican Party. Radicals, who groused all convention weekend about the leadership's bias for Barr, finally had their proof when Barr invited onstage for his victory speech former party executive director Shane Cory, who had resigned from his post after making an indirect attack on Ruwart in a press release. "The party was in collusion with Barr from the beginning," Nolan said afterward. "Once they won they didn't even have to pretend anymore."

The radicals refused to back down after Barr emerged victorious. Steve Kubby ran against Root for vice president and narrowly lost, then walked outside to greet around 100 angry delegates who were ready to leave the party on the spot. Kubby pleaded with them to stay, then asked how many of them would. All but a few raised their hands. In short order, Kubby and Nolan met with Barr to patch things up, and the meeting ended with one of Congress' fiercest drug warriors literally embracing a man who'd fled the country and gone to jail for medical marijuana.

The Barr-Kubby hug revealed what had really happened in Denver, something that got lost in the fury over "neocons taking over" the party: The radicals had actually won. Barr, a politician and lobbyist with plenty to lose, had made the tactical decision to build a third party force outside the GOP. The former drug warrior and social conservative spent days telling delegates what he has spent years telling the press: Any effort to punish Americans for consensual activities is oppressive, doomed, and deserving of failure. After hoping for so long to win prominent converts to the cause, the Libertarian Party finally had managed to do it, over the loud protests of die-hards who worried that embracing a man with Barr's mixed record would damage the party in the long run.

On the night Barr and Root won their nominations, party chairman Bill Redpath said he "would be very surprised, and very disappointed, if we don't achieve all-time vote percentages and vote totals for a Libertarian ticket." A nomination-night banquet that had raised about $30,000 for the ticket in 2004 brought in $64,000 to kick-start the 2008 campaign.

The challenge for Barr and the reformers is to deliver on their promises: to score a record vote total, to grow the party's membership, and to force the two big parties to pay attention. They need to prove that libertarians can do more than form a protest bloc in the GOP or think-tank their way into the mainstream of politics and policy. If they pull that off, the Libertarian Party could reach unprecedented heights.

David Weigel is an associate editor of reason. His online coverage of the Libertarian Party convention can be found here.