Bob Barr Talks

The best-known nominee in Libertarian Party history talks to reason about war, drugs, pornography, Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Ayn Rand.


On Memorial Day weekend, former four-term Republican Rep. Bob Barr took the stage at the Sheraton Denver and asked a skeptical Libertarian Party to make him its nominee for president. Hundreds of party delegates were dead set against his nomination. Anonymous flyers claimed the Georgian wanted to turn the Libertarians into "the New Republican Party." Barr's record in the House of Representatives, particularly his hostility toward medical marijuana and his support for President Bush's anti-terrorism policies, were widely seen as deal breakers.

"Many of you have come up to me and asked, 'Bob, why did you author the Defense of Marriage Act?' " Barr told wary delegates. " 'If you're so set against the PATRIOT Act, why did you vote for it?' Well, let me tell you: I have made mistakes. But the only way you make mistakes, the only way you get things done, is by getting out there in the arena and making those mistakes, and then realizing, as things go on, the mistakes that you've made. And I apologize for that."

That dramatic confession drew a burst of surprised applause from the ballroom. Hours later, Barr became the ninth man to lead the Libertarian Party into a general election.

Bob Barr is easily the most famous politician to represent the party. When Ron Paul won the nomination in 1988, the then-former Texas congressman was far from the national figure he is today. Barr's comparative notoriety, however, stems from some of the very activities he was atoning for in Denver, in addition to his aggressive role in the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. His unlikely journey from drug warrior to Libertarian standard-bearer speaks volumes about how his views have changed, and also about how the conditions for Libertarian politics have changed—for the better.

Barr's public career began in 1986, when he was appointed the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia. There he prosecuted members of Pablo Escobar's drug cartel, jailed a Republican congressman for perjury, and consulted for the pro-market Southeastern Legal Foundation. In 1994 Barr was elected to Congress as part of the Newt Gingrich Revolution and became a dogged opponent of Clinton-era executive power. As a legislator, the staunchly anti-abortion, pro-drug war politician also wrote bills to limit the government's ability to tap phones and intercept cell phone calls, tighten the laws governing civil asset forfeitures, and shrink the duration of firearm background checks. In most of those cases both parties opposed him.

When Georgia Democrats redrew their state congressional map in 2002, they sliced up Barr's district and left him scrambling to run in a different one. The Libertarian Party, angered by Barr's opposition to medical marijuana, ran ads against him in the Republican primary, helping ensure his defeat. Barr then rebuilt his career as a lawyer, consultant, and pundit with a jaundiced eye on the Bush administration's post-9/11 abuses of civil liberties. He endorsed Libertarian presidential nominee Michael Badnarik in 2004, and in 2006 he officially joined the party as a regional representative. At the time he denied interest in a presidential run. But he entered this year's race shortly before the Libertarian convention, started building a staff, and is now aiming to be on 48 state ballots as a "viable third option" for the presidency.

Associate Editor David Weigel spoke to Bob Barr in May, just before the convention, and again in August. For a video interview with the candidate, go to reason.tv/barr.

reason: In 2006, when you joined the Libertarian Party, you told reason that you were not interested in running for anything else. What changed?

Bob Barr: A couple of things. First of all, since 2006 civil liberties have continued to be under assault by this administration and by Washington generally. At the national level—in both the Congress, with very few exceptions, and in the administration, with no exception—the assault on the right to privacy and other civil liberties, the assault on the notion that we are a nation that lives by the rule of law, not by the rule of men, continues to move forward at an accelerating pace.

There's a very interesting quote by Dante Alighieri: "The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crisis remain neutral." So even though continuing to work as a member of the Libertarian National Committee certainly provided an appropriate forum and an opportunity to work to restore liberty and freedom in America, the process has accelerated so greatly that it was absolutely essential to enter the fray.

reason: Some of what you're talking about, though, you supported in Congress. You voted for the Iraq war.

Bob Barr: The Iraq war was presented as something that was based on sound intelligence: a clear and present danger, an immediate threat targeting the United States by the Saddam Hussein regime. We now know that the intelligence was not there to support those arguments. Many of us, including myself, gave the administration the benefit of the doubt, presumed that this would be an operation that was well founded, well thought-out, well strategized, when in fact it wasn't. There was no clear strategy, and we've paid a very, very heavy price for that.

After five years our government is spending humongous amounts of U.S. taxpayer dollars, somewhere upwards of $400 million every single day, to do something that the president said we should never do and would never do, and that is to build a nation. That's not the appropriate role for our military. It's not the appropriate role or goal for a legitimate national defense policy if the emphasis is on defense.

reason: What do you think about the claim by people on the right that radical Islam is a threat similar to communism?

Bob Barr: The Soviet Union and other communist nations, such as China, very clearly were adversarial to us. The entire thrust of their policies was anti-United States, and they created problems for us in a number of areas around the world. That has nothing to do with what's going on in Iraq. The occupation of Iraq should rise or fall on its own. I think it's a very bad foreign policy, a very inappropriate use of our military and a huge number of taxpayer dollars. I would as president begin immediately extricating ourselves, both economically and militarily, from Iraq. It is a bad policy, and it is a counterproductive policy.

reason: What about the PATRIOT Act?

Bob Barr: This was presented to us immediately after 9/11. I took what might be called sort of a leadership role in Congress in marshaling a lot of different groups in opposition both to the PATRIOT Act generally and to specific onerous provisions in it. Several factors caused me to sort of go against my gut reaction and vote for the PATRIOT Act.

The administration did in fact work with us and agree to several pre-vote changes to the PATRIOT Act that did mitigate some of the more problematic provisions in it. The administration also, from the attorney general on down, gave us personal assurances that the provisions in the PATRIOT Act, if they were passed and signed into law, would be used judiciously, that they would not be used to push the envelope of executive power, that they would not be used in non-terrorismrelated cases. They gave us assurances that they would work with us on those provisions that we were able to get sunsetted, work with us to modify those and to look at those very carefully when those provisions came up for reauthorization. The administration also gave us absolute assurances that it would work openly and thoroughly report to the Congress, and by extrapolation to the American people, on how it was using the provisions in the PATRIOT Act. In every one of those areas, the administration has gone back on what it told us.

reason: When the District of Columbia had a nonbinding referendum about decriminalization of medical marijuana in 1998, you wanted them not to count the votes. Do you regret doing that? How have you changed your views on decriminalization and on the war on drugs?

Bob Barr: It's a very legitimate question, and it's one that I've dealt with at great length with a lot of Libertarians.

As I've looked both at the way the drug war has been fought and at the overall substantial growth in government power—which as you know always comes at the expense of the liberty and the freedom of the people; there's nothing, no power that government exercises that is not the result of taking power from the people—the way the federal government has approached the war against drugs has been one that tramples on the very notion of federalism, which used to be one of the underpinnings of the Republican Party. And in that context, to now see the manner in which the administration has fought tooth and nail against any dilution of its absolute power over the states to completely run roughshod in the areas of drug use, even to the extent of refusing to allow legitimate testing to determine whether or not medicinal marijuana meets the criteria laid out in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act—that's very disingenuous. That's very improper.

reason: You called that "voodoo," the idea that marijuana could be used for medical purposes. You were debating Neal Boortz and dismissed it out of hand.

Bob Barr: I think what's really voodoo about this is the way the administration disingenuously says the Controlled Substances Act itself provides a mechanism whereby if there really are valid medicinal uses for marijuana, then certainly we'll consider those, and if they meet the criteria, we'll decriminalize it, take it off of Schedule I, for example. The fact of the matter is that the government has placed roadblock after roadblock in front of any legitimate testing of medicinal marijuana in order to meet the very criteria that the law lays down. That to me is voodoo. Not voodoo economics but voodoo government policy.

What's been very important to my epiphany in this area has been the fact that since 9/11, the speed and scope of the government's assault on individual liberty has become so profound, so pervasive, and so rooted in this notion that the federal government, the executive branch in particular, has plenary power to do whatever it wants. That has caused me to go back and look very carefully at a number of areas in which previously I might've been prone to give the government the benefit of the doubt. We cannot afford any longer to give the government a benefit of the doubt in these areas. We have to go back and try to reclaim them for the individual in terms of liberty.

reason: Would that extend to obscenity prosecution as well? What about the Justice Department prosecuting adult entertainment producers for things that it finds obscene?

Bob Barr: We have well in excess of 4,000 federal criminal laws on the books, to say nothing of all of the civil regulatory edicts that the government has available to it or that the states have available to them. There are over 4,000 different federal criminal laws! That's one reason why we have such a pervasive government presence in our society. That's why federal prosecutors and attorneys general as well—Eliot Spitzer when he was the attorney general up in New York, for example—have been able to use that very heavy hand of prosecution to dictate social behavior. And every year that goes by, not fewer but more criminal laws are placed on the books.

Regulating speech is not something that I believe is or should be in the so-called quiver of weapons that the federal government should have available to it. Particularly here again, as the federal presence has become so pervasive, so oppressive, we really have to take a proactive responsibility to go back and start looking at every one of these areas. Is this really a legitimate area for the government to be involved in? And with regard to obscenity, no, it isn't. That's an area where schools ought to be involved, where parents ought to be involved, where the telecommunications companies and the entertainment industry ought to be involved, but not the federal government. Certainly not from the standpoint of criminal laws.

reason: How would you characterize your philosophy? You've described yourself as a Randian. Unpack that.

Bob Barr: I don't know that anybody is a perfect Randian. I have a very high regard for Ayn Rand, her philosophy, her writings, and the ideas that continue to resonate surprisingly well in our society more than 50 years after Atlas Shrugged and 65 years after The Fountainhead was published. To me the philosophy that is at the core of Ayn Rand, that is at the core of the Libertarian Party, and that is at the core of my philosophy of what government should be doing, is that the government should exercise those powers that are clearly delineated to it and, in addition to that, are essential to allow the citizens to operate with the maximum amount of freedom in our society. In other words, scaling back tremendously, for example, that scope of federal criminal laws.

Even if Bob Barr were president or another Libertarian were president, none of these changes would be accomplished dramatically and instantaneously. But if we don't commit ourselves very consciously to the process, to start unraveling the power of the federal government in particular, I fear the notion that the federal government is able to and should be the supreme authority in a whole range of domestic behavior will be so entrenched, so established, so systematized, that it will from a practical standpoint be impossible to unravel. In that sense, I think this current cycle and the next few years are the sort of the last best hope, as Reagan said, to unravel the oppressive statism that has grown up in our society.

And it's the result not just of these social issues. It's the result, I think, also very much of the power of the government to regulate in the economic sphere. Government regulates so much of what goes on in business and in our economy at all levels, from the personal through the state to the federal level, that it has acclimated people to think of the federal government as not just the last but the first resort to solve problems that people perceive in this society. That is not the job of the federal government.

reason: Do you still think it was justified to impeach Bill Clinton?

Bob Barr: Absolutely. I believe in the rule of law.

The impeachment of Bill Clinton, I think, was a very appropriate exercise of legislative power in this country. Congress clearly has the constitutional power and the responsibility to assure itself on behalf of the American people that a president is operating within the bounds of the law, a responsibility that very, very few Congresses even understand anymore. Look at the sorry oversight experiences of the Congresses under the last several administrations. They rarely view as their responsibility assuring that the executive operates within the laws and with the intent of the laws that Congress has passed and the presidents have signed.

Where you have a president who violates those laws, if they are of the sort that go directly to the character of the presidency, not the president but the presidency, and the operation within the constitutional separation-of-powers framework that our Framers gave us through the Constitution, then I think it's imperative for the Congress to step in. The basis on which I had filed back in November of 1997 the first inquiry of impeachment had nothing to do with Monica Lewinsky or the subsequent obstruction of justice and perjury by the former president. It had to do with other issues that we were never able to secure support from the Republican leadership in the Congress to move forward on, and those related to possibly trading national security information and procedures, national security-related technology, in return for foreign monies coming into our electoral process, directly to the White House in some instances.

We were unable to get the Republican leadership to move forward on the basis that was the primary reason for our initial inquiry. Then the information came in on the obstruction and the perjury. To me, perjury and obstruction were of the sort of potential offenses on the part of a president that went to the character and nature of the presidency, that would provide and should have provided the appropriate basis for an impeachment.

reason: Who's your model Supreme Court justice, living or dead?

Bob Barr: I don't agree with him on several of his substantive opinions, but in terms of the approach and the background and the intellect that he brings to the arguments on the bench, it would be Antonin Scalia. I think he is a very, very fine jurist.

Pretty much all of the justices who have taken the bench in the last several cycles are far too ready to defer to the executive branch in terms of executive branch power. They are far too ready to concede plenary power to the executive branch over anything that might be called national security, whether it is or it isn't. That worries me a great deal.

reason: What Cabinet-level positions do you think could be abolished?

Bob Barr: I would certainly start with the Department of Education. There is, to me, no legitimate basis whatsoever to have the federal government involved in education, period, and certainly to the extent of having a multibillion-dollar federal agency setting the standard for schools in our country.

The Department of Energy to me has no broad legitimate function. If there are some legitimate purposes for having the federal government involved, for example, in assuring the security of atomic materials, that is a very limited function that can and should be more properly handled by the Department of Defense. It does not require a Department of Energy.

The Department of Commerce, to my mind, has no legitimate Cabinet-level function. If there are legitimate functions of the federal government in the commerce area to assure free interstate commerce under the Commerce Clause, that could be handled either through the Department of Justice, assuring that the laws against infringing interstate commerce are appropriately enforced, or maybe by having a very much smaller Commerce Office.

reason: If you were in Congress these last six years, do you think you would have started an inquiry or voted to impeach President Bush?

Bob Barr: I think there clearly were and remain areas that Congress needs to look into from an executive branch abuse standpoint. Whether or not that rises to the level of impeachment, we don't know yet, and I wouldn't speculate on that. But I do believe in the area, for example, of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, systemic abuses, based on a completely alien notion that the chief executive can ignore laws whenever the chief executive decides to, should be investigated.

There are other areas that have come to light recently. For example, the latest memo by John Yoo that relates to the notion that domestic military operations are not subject to the Fourth Amendment. That raises a threshold question: What are we talking about, "domestic military operations"? The federal government should not be involved militarily in domestic operations. What are they doing here? What authorities have they been abusing? Have they actually been operating in violation of the Fourth Amendment? Those clearly are legitimate avenues of inquiry.

reason: What do you think can be or should be done with 12 million undocumented people? Do you think it's a government role to keep track of those people, and potentially move them out of the country?

Bob Barr: Certainly. It is a proper function, in my view, of the government to know who is coming into the country and who is here under different types of visas and for different, lawful purposes. One of the reasons why the terrorists succeeded on 9/11 and on the days leading up to 9/11 is that the government was not tracking those who are in this country under various visas and various procedures. Obviously the results of not doing that can be devastating.

I believe it is a perfectly legitimate function of the government to provide visas, different types, for those who wish to enter the country, whether for work, education, or simply visiting. I believe in a very, very open system of visas for people who wish to enter this country. The criteria need to be that they submit themselves to having a reasonable background check to assure ourselves reasonably that they do not pose a security risk to this country and submit themselves to a basic health check to assure ourselves reasonably that they don't have a communicable disease.

For those who are currently in this country unlawfully, I do not believe in trying to round them up. I think that would require such an oppressive immigration or law enforcement presence that it would be completely counterproductive in terms of liberty and freedom. But I do believe if people who are in this country unlawfully do not submit themselves to coming back in lawfully according to the same terms as those people who are now seeking to enter the country, they should be deported if they are found out.

reason: What is the harm of having people who came here from Ecuador or Mexico, without documentation, if they're not otherwise committing crimes?

Bob Barr: It has to do with basic respect for the rule of law and respect for a country's sovereignty. If people do not have that respect for the law, and if people do not have that respect for our sovereignty, they have no business being here. If someone wants to enter this country, they need to do so lawfully so that our government knows who is coming in, and if they are here under a temporary visa, that we know that they are here under a temporary visa. When the terms of that are up, they need to submit themselves to a change in their status. I think it is a legitimate function of government to control its own borders and protect its own sovereignty.

reason: Libertarians are getting creamed when it comes to smoking and what's in food. Why do you think the momentum's on the other side?

Bob Barr: I suspect it's because we don't have at the appropriate level of government strong spokespeople to raise these issues and to get the appropriate pro-liberty view before the relevant government officials or the voters. It is very distressing to see these things happen, whether it's in New York, by virtue of Mayor Bloomberg, or in California, by virtue of his soul mate Arnold Schwarzenegger.

reason: An issue that really animated Ron Paul's campaign was whether there should be a Federal Reserve. What's your take on that, and how much of a priority do you make that in talking about the economy?

Bob Barr: The primary focus of our campaign is to begin shrinking the size, the power, the scope, and the cost of the federal government, even before we begin focusing on, for example, specific tax reform measures. The first order of business is to get a handle on the fiscal size of the federal government. They just raised the debt ceiling by $800 billion to $10.6 trillion, if I'm not mistaken. The president's budget, which is going to be nearly $500 billion in red ink at the end of this fiscal year, is well over $3 trillion. These sums bear no relationship to the reasonable function, the reasonable expenditures, of the federal government, and account for, in large measure, the economic problems we're having in this country. We've got to get a handle, first and foremost, on government spending.

If we allow ourselves to be drawn off that primary message, the priority message of this campaign, by getting into a theoretical discussion of the Federal Reserve, then it's going to be very difficult for us to reach the American public in a way that they can relate to, which is how much of their money the federal government is taking and spending on programs that it has no business getting involved in. Like $70 billion, give or take, with the Department of Education.

Now, as a longer-term measure, yes, that would be a goal of our administration. I do not believe it is appropriate for unelected, unaccountable individuals—that is, the Federal Reserve Board members—to be controlling and attempting to manage our economy. We are moving right now in the direct opposite direction than I would take, through the forced takeover of Bear Stearns, the involvement of the Fed in the mortgage business.

reason: You observed the 2004 Libertarian presidential campaign from the outside. What mistakes did you see? How would you correct them as a third-party candidate yourself?

Bob Barr: I'm certainly not so presumptuous as to tell the Libertarian Party what it ought to be doing or what it's done wrong in the past. But I think it is a responsibility that I have as a life member of the Libertarian Party, as a member of the Libertarian National Committee, and as a nominee to not engage in certain behavior or certain strategies that clearly are doomed to failure.

I think one thing the Libertarian Party needs to do is to present its message of freedom and liberty to the American people through candidates that the American people can relate to, and in words and priorities that the American people can understand. So that, for example, rather than talk hypothetically about executive branch power or hypothetically about the high cost of regulation, talk about these issues in ways that the small business owner, that the American family, that the individual voter and citizen in this country can understand.

If you talk about these issues in very vague, hypothetical terms, or you talk about issues that are going to scare the American public, I think you're making a mistake. You can make the same point, you can move that Libertarian agenda forward much more rapidly, if you keep in mind that your audience is not necessarily going to be fellow Libertarians, it's going to be fellow Americans. And you have to recognize also that in the heart of every American beats a libertarian about something. Every citizen in this country, I believe, has some area of their lives—whether it's their personal behavior within their homes, whether it's how to educate and discipline their children, whether it's about how to run their business, their political thought, their religious practices—where they want to be left alone. The Libertarian Party, I think, needs to recognize that and appeal to that and draw that out from the American public and the American voters, rather than talk just generally about great philosophical principles.

reason: How do you feel now about losing your House seat in 2002?

Bob Barr: I didn't set out to lose in 2002, and I certainly was not happy about losing in 2002, but to be honest with you, I lost not one moment of sleep over it. It happened. We moved on. You look for new opportunities. Those new opportunities presented themselves to me, to some extent, in the form of the Libertarian Party.

The fact that the Libertarian Party worked against me in 2002 caused me to look very hard at the Libertarian Party. Not as an adversary—not with any bitterness. I looked at the Libertarian Party because I believed there was something that they did and stood for that they were able to tap into that maybe I should pay closer attention to, and look at why I lost that election, not blame somebody else for it. I never blamed the Libertarian Party or anybody for my loss. That irritates me a little bit with the Republicans and the Democrats who denigrate any third-party candidate who might have the audacity to rear their head above the weeds and say "I'm going to run."

The two major parties seem to think that they have a God-given right to be the only players on the political field, and therefore if somebody else runs and gains enough votes, the major-party candidates can somehow through their flawed logic say, "Aha, I lost because this third-party candidate took votes." It's absolutely inappropriate. It's un-American. What Sen. McCain, if he is unsuccessful in the 2008 election, ought to do, is look back, along with his colleagues in the Republican Party, and do some soul searching. Why did we lose the election? What was it about our message and our platform, if there was one, that didn't resonate sufficiently with the American people? Why was this candidate not attractive enough to the people? Do that, and try to improve their message and their platform perhaps, rather than simply blame somebody else.

reason: Do you worry about being ostracized, as Ralph Nader was by liberals in 2000, or losing influence and the ability to speak out on some of this stuff?

Bob Barr: No, I don't worry about it. I believe I have developed over the years a marketable credibility on the issues about which I was asked to speak. That's not going to change. I fully intend to continue working on the same areas, and continue, I hope, to have credibility on issues like privacy, separation of powers, executive power, and congressional oversight.