Bob Barr Looks Back
An exit interview with the 2008 Libertarian candidate for president
WASHINGTON—"Life was a bitch," says Bob Barr.
We are sitting in the coffee nook at the Mayflower Hotel, the aged Washington, D.C. institution where, some 76 years ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote his first inaugural address. We are not yet talking about the campaign for president that Barr finished in fourth place with 512,000-odd votes. Barr is talking about his habit of downing a high-single-digit number of espressos every day, and how hard this was before Starbucks came along.
"Most countries I'd lived in had cultures of much heavier coffee," Barr explains. "In South America you've got café con leche. In the Middle East you need a knife and fork to drink the coffee. It was hard to get strong coffee here—I was delighted when Starbucks made it big."
Barr is in Washington to speak with fellow alumni of Georgetown Law School at a meeting of the Federalist Society, and to build up the client list for Liberty Strategies, his consulting firm. "I absented myself from producing income for about eight months," Barr says. "I'm a working stiff." Hence the coffee, and hence a packed schedule that's meant to introduce Barr to the people who can get him back in the black.
Over the course of a six-month campaign, Barr spent more time than he might have liked dealing with intra-Libertarian squabbling, lower-than-expected fundraising numbers, and what his running mate Wayne Allyn Root called "the ghost of Ron Paul"—persistent media attention on the indecisive Republican candidate who, contrary to some expectations, did not endorse the Libertarian ticket. Over coffee, Barr hashed out how he got the nomination, what went right and wrong, and what he's doing now.
reason: What did you get out of your stint in the Libertarian National Committee?
Bob Barr: From my standpoint, it gave me an opportunity I've not had before to learn the personalities in the Libertarian Party, and to learn the structure of the party. It gave me the opportunity to assure at least some Libertarians that I wasn't a Trojan horse. I wasn't a Republican trying to use the Libertarian Party to further the Republican agenda, or some such nonsense. I think I accomplished that working with the LNC.
reason: There are still LP members who aren't satisfied—less than there were in May, but various voices on the web who make this argument.
Barr: In any political movement you're never going to be able to satisfy everybody. Reagan didn't. I really don't think that anybody with a straight face could make that argument now. I really don't. Which does not mean that everybody in the Libertarian Party loves Bob Barr. I doubt that that's the case. I do think that over the course of the campaign, the people that we worked with, the issues that we presented, I think gave lie to any lingering doubts that I was not a Libertarian.
reason: In December of last year, you proposed, and the LNC passed, a resolution asking Ron Paul to drop his GOP bid and run as the Libertarian candidate. Was that more for attention, or was it a real attempt to get him to run?
Barr: I meant it exactly how it was worded. I saw at that point, and I don't think anyone saw otherwise, that Ron was not going to get the Republican nomination. He had, in fact, built up a significant amount of public attention, a persona as a libertarian with a small l, and my thought was, "Let's make a serious effort here, an honest effort to get him formally back into party and take advantage of what he's done." At the time, had he taken advantage of it, it would have been a significant boost for him and the Libertarian Party.
reason: You had joined the LNC saying you would not run for president. When did you privately decide to make the race?
Barr: I introduced Ron Paul at CPAC. His speech came a few hours after Mitt Romney left the Republican race, which made it much clearer that McCain was going to win the nomination. For whatever reason that's when I started being approached very consistently by a lot of Libertarians about throwing my hat in the ring.
reason: Why did it take two months for you start an exploratory committee and another month to announce? I've heard two explanations. One was the financial consideration of losing your clients, which you've already talked about. The other explanation I heard was that you could not risk running and losing the nomination.
Barr: I was never assured to win the nomination. Some people might have thought that. I didn't. I knew it would be a battle right down to the wire, which it was. I didn't get into it because I was sure I would win. I ran because I thought it was important to do it. Most of the time between February and May, I was working through the personal side of the run—talking to my wife, my son Derek.
reason: Throughout that period, though, and really up to the Republican convention, the big mainstream media story about Libertarians was what Ron Paul would do. Michael Badnarik, the party's 2004 nominee, told me in May that he was still waiting to see if Paul could win the Republican nomination before he supported the LP again. What was the effect of all this?
Barr: It was a not-insignificant frustration, let's say. It was somewhat difficult to convince people of the fact that we had a real timeline here. Certain things had to start being done in order to have the chance for the impact I knew we could have. Every day that went by with people sitting around for something to happen, which common sense told you was not going to happen, was a day lost. It was very frustrating.
reason: You were polling well through the summer, but you took a hit after John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. What was the impact of that on your campaign?
Barr: I don't think that Palin really mattered that much. Initially, perhaps, when her name was first announced and there was all of this unbridled excitement over Sarah Palin, I think there was some concern that it would stanch the flow of Republicans ditching the ticket because of McCain's liberal credentials. But by the time all the dust settled on election day, I think a lot of them realized that she was not the great savoir for the conservative movement that she was put forward as nationally, but I don't think that really mattered all that much. What killed us in the end is that the election came down to a referendum on Barack Obama, period. Nothing else seemed to matter to people.
reason: What did matter? Campaign funds? At the convention, Russ Verney told me that he hoped to raise $30 million, and the campaign eventually raised about $1.2 million.
Barr: If certain things had happened that we expected to happen early on, like gaining access to certain lists very quickly, I think we could have gotten there. But those lists turned out to be not available, unfortunately, and that prevented us early to turn over and over again into significant fundraising. We didn't get that seed money early on that we anticipated. We realistically anticipated it. We didn't sit around say 'it would be nice to have all that money.'"
reason: Was one of these Ron Paul's fundraising list?
Barr: All I can say is that it appeared very realistic that we would have a list that let us raise a large amount of seed money that we could build on. And that didn't happen.
reason: What effect did your own running mate, Wayne Allyn Root, have on the ticket?
Barr: I enjoyed having Wayne on the ticket very much. I enjoy him personally very much. I mean, he's a very gregarious person. I enjoy his family as well. I think he brought a lot of energy to the campaign, a new dimension to the campaign, and a business perspective that got him booked on Fox Business and CNBC with sufficient regularity to have a little breakthrough there.
reason: Did you expect Root to be more of a fundraising asset?
Barr: Everything in a campaign doesn't always work out like you hoped. What can I say?
reason: You and Root both spoke frequently about bringing conservatives into the Libertarian Party from the GOP. Are you still focused on that?
Barr: First things first. I'm not going to bring anybody into an organization unless that organization is ready for it, has the groundwork laid for it, has a degree of receptivity to make it productive to bring them in. There's a lot of work that has to be done to move the party down the road it started on under [former executive director] Shane Cory into a truly professional viable political entity. There are still those in the Libertarian Party that do not want to go down that road, and there are some in the party that will have to make an important decision about that: whether they want to build themselves into a professional viable political party, or whether they don't.
If so, we've got a tremendous opportunity to increase the size, power, influence of the party. The Republican Party is in absolute disarray. And I think it'll get worse for them. I don't even think they've even reached bottom yet. If the Libertarian Party were at the point I'd like to see it at, we could shine in this atmosphere. We'd be on the news, media would seek us out, to provide the counterbalance that no one else is capable of doing.
reason: After this year, and all of the tension and different timelines and goals of your campaign and the Paul campaign, is the libertarian movement stronger or is it more divided?
Barr: Absolutely, it's stronger. Absolutely. The way I look at it, it isn't as if Ron Paul built this foundation over here and our campaign built this one over here, and they're discreet components. We're building one foundation. What Ron Paul did was a tremendous benefit to the Libertarian movement in making people aware of the movement, of our philosophy, of elements people don't usually hear about in a coherent way. The monetary system, and so forth, which Ron talks about very eloquently.
reason: What mistakes were made this year that the LP has to avoid making again?
Barr: We have to not look backwards. If we are serious about being a real political party we have to set political goals, educate people, have a consistent message, organize at all levels, and look for opportunities. You don't wait for opportunities to be handed to you. Where's the Libertarian Party in these debates about the incoming administration? It needs to be there. But what do I know?
David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.