"Can I Get Equal Time Here?"

Allen Buckley, the Libertarian who may decide a Senate race


ATLANTA—"Look," says Allen Buckley. "We know this race is going to a runoff. You can vote your conscience."

Buckley, the Libertarian candidate for the United States Senate in Georgia, was looking straight into the bevy of local TV cameras at the Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) studio, recording this sixth and final candidate debate. On his left was Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who led comfortably in polls before the economy crashed and he voted for the $700 billion bailout. On Chambliss' left was Democrat Jim Martin, a former state representative who, to his delight, has surged into a tie thanks to millions of dollars in TV ads paid for by a party hungrily eyeing its 60th Senate seat.

This last-minute tightening has placed Buckley in the unfamiliar position of potentially affecting an election. He has run twice before for statewide office—two years ago he campaigned against Martin for lieutenant governor, and they both lost. But those races were not close enough for most voters to concern themselves much with Buckley's shy presentation and his relentless use of Government Accountability Office numbers to explain how current levels of federal spending are unsustainable.

The bailout cut right to Buckley's message. "I was against it, and I explained what I wanted to do instead," he explained before the debate. "I like tax cuts but only when they're matched with spending cuts, and I've proposed a 25 percent across-the-board cut in spending apart from Social Security. If we did that right now it would balance the budget, allow the Social Security surplus to be funded, and provide for tax cuts."

Neither of Buckley's opponents care to get that specific about slashing government. "I'm running against two Democrats, basically," Buckley grumbled as a GPB attendant pointed him toward the green room. Cobb County Libertarian activist David Chastain put it a little differently: "He's running against two socialists."

One of those "socialists" will win on or after Tuesday. If neither Chambliss nor Martin draw more than 50 percent of the vote, then by Georgia law they will battle in a run-off election to be held four weeks later. National Republican and Democratic money and bodies will swarm in with a force not seen since Sherman's March.

With such potential responsibility on his hands, Buckley spent the final debate bloodying up both candidates.

Chambliss, a tall, smug pol who combines the sneer of Spiro Agnew with the studied folksiness of Boss Hogg, tried to plain-talk his way through his support for the bailout on the first question of the night by maintaining that banks were just "fixin' to fail." Martin criticized that, so Chambliss shot back: "He's been for it, he's been against it, he's been for it, and tonight it's popular for him to be against it."

Buckley entered the conversation. "I called the GAO," he said, "and asked if this trend toward unsustainable deficits would continue under the policies of both major parties. They told me it would. I am the only candidate providing answers." But the Libertarian was left out of a finger-wagging exchange between the two major-party candidates over which banks, exactly, were benefiting unfairly from the bailout. "Can I get equal time here?" Buckley asked. The moderators passed.

Chambliss attributed the nationwide fall in gas prices to his vote to end the ban on offshore oil drilling, though he humbly acknowledged that "we [Republicans] can't take 100 percent of the credit." Buckley snorted audibly. "You can take zero percent of the credit, because that's what you're entitled to!" Chambliss laughed and half-patted the much shorter Buckley on the back. "The GAO probably told him to say that, too."

When Buckley got his chance to ask Chambliss a direct question he rattled off how much non-defense spending had increased in the Republican's Senate career, waved his notes, and asked, "What would you cut?"

"Alan, you should have taken your pill tonight," Chambliss replied.

"You need the whole bottle!" Buckley responded.

The somnolent studio audience cracked up. Chambliss drew back his lips like a crossbow. That was the last cheap shot he'd take at Buckley, who then used his question for Martin to ask "what has Senator Chambliss failed to do" about entitlement spending. Chambliss replied by accusing the Libertarian of wanting to cut Social Security and Medicare.

"Not true," said Buckley. He looked up from his notes and into the camera. "A U.S. senator just lied to you."

Buckley explained that he wanted a referendum on Social Security with the voters deciding whether to raise FICA taxes or not. Was it a dodge? Arguably, but that just laid the tracks for moderators to ask Chambliss about his support for the Fair Tax, the theoretical sales tax that would replace the income tax. "He's using all of you Fair Tax zealots because he's lost you on the real issues," Buckley said. "When the Republicans ran everything, he could have introduced a Fair Tax bill. Why didn't he, if he's such a good leader?"

Buckley closed his remarks with attacks on both candidates. Martin was a "good man" who wouldn't make a great senator, while "Saxby Chambliss is not, and never will be a great senator." He asked for people to support him, which would set up a runoff. And with that, he closed his final debate.

Local news reporters swarmed Buckley, Chambliss, and Martin after the lights dimmed. Before and after the debate, Buckley declined to say who he'd support in a runoff. (Given the chance to imagine actually winning, he called it a theoretical "gunshot heard around the world that would represent real change, not Obama change.")

"Alan was really good tonight," said Jim Martin as he spotted Georgia Libertarian Party Chair Daniel Adams. Buckley returned the favor. "Jim's a pleasant guy." He did not have similarly kind words for Chambliss.

An hour later, Adams joined a number of LP activists at a house they've subletted to the Bob Barr campaign's surplus staff. Fox 5 led its broadcast with Buckley calling Chambliss a "liar." But other than that, the third-party candidate barely made it into the final report. Editors included Chambliss' "pill" insult, but cut the Buckley comeback.

It was telling. If he forces a runoff, Buckley will become one of the pivotal politicians of election 2008. Close races are the surest way of drawing attention to Libertarians. Earlier that day, Bob Barr had noted that his uptick in local media coverage came as polls showed McCain's lead over Obama collapsing. There was a spoiler story to write again! But for one more election, despite the issues, despite the debate, that's the only story the rest of the media will write about Buckley.

David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.

NEXT: Arizona and Health Care Reform

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  1. “how Libertarian Alan Buckley may help decide a race for the U.S. Senate.”

    I haven’t RTFA yet, but I’m guessing it has something to do with the other guys being 48-48 and the guy who loses will swear it’s because Buckley was on the ballot.

    Am I close?

  2. Libertarians are a force to be reckoned with. Don’t let a little bank nationalization get you down. Big government is on the run. Donate now!

  3. Funny, I thought the bank nationalization was in response to the long, eeevil tentacles of the pervasive, influential libertarian movement, or some such similar BS from lefties.

  4. How will this LP guy help decide anything, anyway? The article mentions that the election will go to a runoff if nobody wins a majority, so people will just gripe about the libertarian causing an extra election.

  5. Eric: When Libertarians get to play the kingmaker, it means the other parties will have to cater to our views, because we can campaign against the ones who don’t and knock them out of office. Some state LPs even make it official policy to do so.

  6. Quiet honestly I hate when the LP candidate just carries a percent or two but causes enough problems that someone else says they lost because of them. This just gets people pissed off. It doesn’t bring votes our way. In fact, I think it takes votes away from us in the future. The next time someone consders voting for a LP candidate they will think twice because it might let the worst “evil” candidate to win.

    I think we need to do far more in getting our voting numbers up in places where it won’t help decide an election. Once we have these bigger vote totals then we can become a force to be reckoned with and we can start saying that the other parties are stealing votes from us instead.

    I also think we waste a lot of money in these close elections as many people who would normally vote for us but instead votes for the lesser of two-evils instead. Look at New Mexico last year. Badnarik polled like 4-5% just prior to the vote and ended up with around 1%. This was likely due to the lesser of two-evils syndrome in a close contest.

  7. My question is, how did Buckley get into the debate in the first place?

  8. Smappy,

    He has been in every Senate debate I’ve seen this season.We treat Libertarians equally down here in Georgia.

  9. I wasn’t sure that I made the right choice in voting for Buckley, but after last night’s debate I slept soundly knowing that I made the right choice. I just wish more candidates would back up their beliefs with actually stats and come to debates prepared with cite-able facts and source notes.

  10. I also voted for Alan Buckley.

  11. When Libertarians get to play the kingmaker, it means the other parties will have to cater to our views, because we can campaign against the ones who don’t and knock them out of office. Some state LPs even make it official policy to do so.

    They can’t play at kingmaker in a runoff system. Most of the people who voted for them will pick Red or Blue in the runoff (while the rest stay home), and they have no influence over that.

  12. Saxby Chambliss is a giant douche. Or maybe he’s a shit sandwich. He’s one of those, and Jim Martin is the other.

  13. I’m a little bitch who likes to take in the butt.

  14. Saxby Chambliss is a giant douche. Or maybe he’s a shit sandwich. He’s one of those, and Jim Martin is the other.

    You better figure out which is which before the runoff economist!

  15. They can’t play at kingmaker in a runoff system.

    Sure they can. Capturing the libertarian vote(s) can help you either avoid or win a runoff.

  16. Sure they can. Capturing the libertarian vote(s) can help you either avoid or win a runoff.

    Please! The actual tiny number of libertarian voters don’t matter to the parties in the slightest; what matters to the teams are the annoyed Reds and occasional Blues who threw a protest vote that way because hey, as the candidate himself pointed out, there’ll be a runoff, when they will vote for a Red or Blue.

    In other words, when they’ll vote for who they would have voted for anyway, if there hadn’t been an LP candidate.

    Kingmakers? What kingmakers?

  17. And yes, it’s strictly true that winning the sincere libertarians will help you avoid a runoff.

    This trade-off is about as enticing as “Hey, if everyone in our campaign staff cuts off a tie with rusty pliers, we’ll avoid a runoff!”

  18. “R C Dean | November 3, 2008, 5:54pm | #

    They can’t play at kingmaker in a runoff system.

    Sure they can. Capturing the libertarian vote(s) can help you either avoid or win a runoff.”

    Plus a candidate MIGHT change his view if he realizes that a lot of voters agree with libertarians on certain issues. For example most people I have talked to were against the bailout.

  19. It’s “Allen Buckly” not Alan

  20. Where can I find a video of this debate and/or other debates Libertarians have gotten into? I try to make a point of watching them, though I often skip the inane dribble from the Republicrats. Mike Munger did very well. I have strong hopes for his future within the LP.

  21. A 49-49-2 election simply should not go into an expensive run-off. Georgia should switch to the New York City model where there’s a run-off only if no candidate gets less than 40%.

  22. Why does most of the media refuse to cover Libertarian candidates, even those who are qualified and have a campaign organization behind them? This is about the eight-zillionth time I have seen a Libertarian candidate strongly debate his opponents, only to be cropped out of all the newspaper photos the next day, and mentioned only in the last line of the story, e.g. “so-and-so also participated in the debate.”

    Can someone please explain that to me? I understand why ballot roadblocks are thrown in the way of the LP candidates, but I don’t understand all the hostility from the media.

  23. SIV,
    I intend not to vote in the runoff, since I am forced in that case to vote for either a giant douche or a turd sandwich.

  24. I’d vote for the shit sandwich most likely to stand up for my Second Amendment Rights.Which would be that giant douche bag Saxby Chambliss. I can’t vote the runoff though because I’m skipping the election.

  25. This isn’t the first time it’s happened. Back in 92 Neither Wyche Fowler or Paul Coverdell were able to get a majority of the vote because of the Libertarian candidate. Fowler had a plurality the first time around, but lost in the runoff.

    Ironically, the Democrats got rid of the runoff system afterwards. When the Republicans took control of the State House and Governorship, they reinstated it. Now it may come back to bite them.

    It’s also good for ballot access. If any Libertarian candidate gets 5% of the vote for a statewide office, it ensures ballot access. People shouldn’t laugh. The Republican party started out as a fringe party. It could go the way of the Whig just as well.

  26. The Republican party started out as a fringe party.

    Seems like they’re doing all they can to get back there.


  27. I voted for Buckley a week ago, and as much as I rant to my out-of-state friends about what a terrible place Georgia is, I must admit I’m proud of the progress they’re making this year. Not only is Buckley in every debate and likely to top 5%, we’re likely to get our first statewide Libertarian officeholder today (John Monds.) Now if only we can get some challengers to state senate and congressional races, Libertarian or not, I would be ecstatic (about 2/3 of those races, the incumbent ran uncontested.)

  28. In answer to Buckley’s inclusion: word on the street is that Jim Martin insisted on it or he wouldn’t debate.

    I can’t understand, though, why Saxby wouldn’t be happy with just not debating.

  29. Buckley did not cause the runoff as much as the One hundred and Seventy Thousand people who did not vote in that race at all but voted in the Presidential Election. more people voted for President and hit cast ballot than voted for Buckley in the first place.

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