John Buckley, cousin to William F. Buckley, had a long personal background in Republican Party and conservative movement politics, including a stint running Young Americans for Freedom in the 1970s. He won a state legislative seat in Virginia in 1979. He lost his seat after one term and says that "by the early ‘90s I had soured on the Republican Party as a vehicle for expressing my political principles"—not because his principles had changed that much, or even that the Party’s lip service stated principles had, but that no Republicans seemed to act on the free-market side of their message.
After retiring from many years as an official with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, Buckley is running for Senate this year from West Virginia, where he has a home with his same-sex partner, with the Libertarian Party. The Washington Post recognized the race as one of seven nationally where the L.P. could be a player.
West Virginia is a state where the L.P. has, for now, ballot access without the need for expensive and morale-wrecking ballot access campaigns, thanks to the over-one-percent pull of their last gubernatorial candidate in 2012, David Moran. Buckley was nominated by the Party at a state convention in March. As usual with third party candidates, he admits big fundraising is still a chicken-and-egg problem of attention, and can only hope he gets included in multi-candidate debates in the fall.
Reason: Why run for office with a third party?
John Buckley: Republicans give a lot of lip talk to the principles of limited government, and whether people lose principles when they get to office, or even high party office, or never had them to begin with didn’t really matter if ultimately people lose those principles along the way and don’t advance the cause of limited government and individual liberty. I’ve found a more comfortable philosophical home within the L.P., while recognizing it doesn’t have resources to be competitive in all the races it has advanced candidates.
I was finishing a 12-year tenure in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, working for a federal judge under the restrictions of judicial ethics. I could not participate in any politics, electoral campaign, even issue politics--which is as ought to be with federal judges.
I was planning to retire. My partner and I had a home in West Virginia for 12 years initially purchased as a vacation home and remodeled to be our anticipated home when one of us would retire. With an open Senate seat with Jay Rockefeller retiring, it seemed an opportunity to get back in and advance principles I believe in. I think the country is going off in a terrible direction. I’m putting as much as I can into it, all my resources of time and a modest amount of personal funds to launch a campaign.
I’ve been seeking opportunities in any public forums where groups will invite candidates to appear, speak, debate. Most [of that action] I believe will be coming in the fall, after Labor Day. But now I’m trying to get in front of the public at fairs, festival and other public events, anywhere I can find to shake hands, pass out literature. I’m using the late spring and summer months to develop a campaign organization, raising what funds I can, getting people involved and prepared pass out literature, signs, bumper stickers, get organized across the state.
Reason: Is your Republican opponent vulnerable to a Libertarian challenge?
Buckley: It’s an open seat, and the Republican candidate is a 7-term congresswoman, Shelley Moore Capito. The Democrat is Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. Capito is seen as the frontrunner; most think West Virginia will be a net pickup seat for the Republicans in their goal to take majority spot in U.S. Senate.
As for Capito, it was shocking to me on almost every issue possible, she was at best weak and otherwise wrong on everything. She doesn’t have a record of exhibiting and committing to principle, of the sort that leads you to believe you can trust where she stands. I think she’s a setback for the cause of limited government, these moderates in sheep’s clothing are often a viper in the bosom. I was quite astonished at how assiduously she avoids sticking her neck out on anything whatsoever.
Reason: What are some specifically West Virginia issues at play?
Buckley: Grassroots conservatives in West Virginia are concerned about jobs, the economy. They are sick and tired of valuable tax dollars being wasted in forays across the world to remake the world in our image. Whether Tea Party or average cultural conservative, individuals in West Virginia are tired of us sticking our neck out being the world’s policeman or world’s nanny. It’s a lesson learned the hard way observing the past 13 years of money being spend futilely in trying to accomplish that. They don’t begrudge dollars spent for national defense, but if not defending our country, at the grassroots level folks are not wanting us to be adventurous, projecting our vision across the world. They are a bit jaded, tired of that. [His opponents] say nothing, don’t stick their necks out [about Syria and Iraq]. They are so afraid, both of them, of sticking their necks out in competition against each other to prove who can be the most moderate of moderates. We can’t afford to get the country forced back into that conflict.
West Virginians want to know where you stand on coal and on guns, of course. I am 100 percent in favor of Second Amendment rights, including the right to self-defense, not just to hunt. Of course people are told that by every politician in West Virginia and more than asking candidates where they stand on guns, when I have the chance to engage in conversation with voters, I ask whether [his opponents] exhibited any commitment to principle anywhere anytime about anything. If you don’t know if they’ll stick with principle, you get lots of political happy talk in West Virginia on gun rights but you don’t know how staunchly Second Amendment rights will be defended.
A huge portion of West Virginia is economically dependent on coal and they are very concerned about high-handed arbitrary regulations of the EPA. Both of my opponents say they will go to Washington to fight these regulations, but Capito has been there 14 years and where is the effectiveness of her fight? Natalie Tennant, it’s your party, your president, how can you be effective in stopping the Obama administration’s war on coal? Draconian EPA regulations that are a bit beyond the purview of EPA, they stretched their interpretation of regulatory power in enforcing technology mandates that are not economically effective, like coal sequestration.
I raise more generically the idea of regulations being promulgated by executive branch agencies without final say up or down by Congress, this idea that Congress passes generalized legislation like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and the executive branch agencies can run with regulations and have the final say so--that is I think a mistake in the way separation of powers should work. On the federal level I want a more fundamental reconsideration of agency regulations, at least of a certain economic burden, they ought to be required to go back to Congress for an affirmative vote.
Reason: You are one of the few openly gay Senate candidates this year. How might that play into your votes?
Buckley: Younger voters however conservative politically or culturally they are have advanced light years forward on the issue of marriage. For younger voters it’s really not an issue at all, gay marriage. To the extent I raise it, I see it as an issue among other issues about limited government, live and let live, bringing economic freedom and personal civil liberties together in a more consistent message. An illustrative issue, certainly, but it’s not going to bring huge swaths of voters my way. I cross a lot of lines in my candidacy on issues I hope will get people at least to sit up and say, an interesting combination this guy Buckley stands for, he’s confident enough to stick with principles.
I’m also a pro-life libertarian, a minority positon in the Libertarian Party. I find it a consistently defendable message even along libertarian principles, not as a moral majoritarian perspective. I recognize good, principled, decent people can completely disagree on this issue, so I can reach out to social conservatives in that respect even if on gay marriage they are leery. I think I can win some social conservatives even though I’ve made no bones about being an openly gay candidate.
Reason: Any lessons learned from having been a successful one-term Republican state legislator in the ‘70s?
Buckley: It was shocking to me in the innocence of youth, I was in my mid 20s, the extent to which people on the level of the House of Delegates in Virginia were more concerned in posturing and positioning themselves for re-election than accomplishing the goals of better government that I presume led them to want to be involved. Everyone in political office quickly ends up measuring political success by longevity rather than by policy accomplishment. It was so disheartening. Pressure from special interests is so unrelenting and constant that you end up giving into things because that’s your bread and butter for getting re-elected.
Reason: Is there are a real non-partisan small government movement you think you can appeal to, even as a Libertarian?
Buckley: My campaign will be a test of the Tea Party. When I go out chatting at fairs and festivals with most people I get 30 seconds at most. I hand off a card, I’ll say I’m not a big fan of Obama’s politics and get almost uniformly heads nodding. Then I say I’m not a big business Republican either, not for bailouts, subsidies, special interests taking over, and people continue nodding. They’ll quickly glance through the brief text in my handouts, and I have to hope they will continue to look at where candidates stand more than party labels. My biggest hurdle is getting it known that they have a genuine choice, it’s not just Tennant v. Capito and vote based on which you dislike least, the big government politics of Tennant and the moderate, don’t-stick-neck-out-for anything politics of Capito.
Some people have chosen to advance their principles which I share within the mechanism of the Republican Party. Many have told me around the state they are voting for me, hoping I get as many votes as possible, but have a party office in GOP or aspire to party or public office in the Republican Party and thus they have to be quiet about support for my candidacy. Lots of Republicans recognize Capito doesn’t stand for what they believe in—I’m hoping to position myself when some happy fortuitous break comes my way that’s not my doing, things happen in the context of political campaigns, that I’m positioned to take advantage of those breaks even if I’m not in the position resource-wise to make them happen.
Reason: Immigration is another big issue right now. Is that a thing in your campaign?
Buckley: That’s a tough issue. To the extent voters perceive that open immigration is going to come at their expense, they are wary of the direction the country is heading with the borders and immigration. As a libertarian I’m kind of caught in the middle, perhaps not as ideological as some of my brethren. I’m not quite sure, despite economists and academicians saying otherwise, if there aren’t short term problems over how to afford all the public benefits courts and politicians have mandated, and how we can afford them? Welcoming hard-working immigrants is part and parcel of the character of America, but at the same time figuring out how to afford keeping ourselves a beacon for those across the world and to continue to fight against the welfare society.
We have to create a mechanism to normalize people already here in a way that doesn’t contravene one of our principles, which is rule of law. That does not set the stage for more in the future to say, get in illegal and stick around long enough, so really there are no laws against illegal immigration. I don’t know how to do that, since taking immigrants who are hardworking and contributing and sending them back home to countries they are not a part of any longer is not practical either.
Reason: You’ve been pushing small-government ideas since your YAF days—do you think the modern scene is more open to them in a significant way?
Buckley: That’s a difficult question. In some respects I’m a pessimist; I see the success of Obama and I see capitulation on principles by Republicans in office who are at least seen as being conservative. I think in some way every citizen is wary of grandiose government programs and wars to remake society. I think the average citizen is still ready for a genuine small government candidate, but ever since Obama was elected I’ve worried the country is past the tipping point.
But I don’t want to go down without a fight. I think there’s still an opportunity to galvanize new coalitions of voters who maybe are starting to realize they have more in common than they realize, Tea Partiers and marriage equality advocates really have a lot in common but don’t know it. They are positioned by media and their own organizational leaders to see themselves as polar opposite but have a lot in common if you want to just be left alone. I want to say to gun rights advocates, Tea Party members, would you support personal freedom for other people if the tradeoff was, you get the freedom you want? From taxes, big government gun grabbing schemes, meddling across the world—put the question to people that way.
Maybe there is a new mechanism to build a freedom coalition, and I don’t think it will come from the Republican Party. That’s why I’m affiliated with the L.P., as much as I’m glad to see small “l” libertarians advancing some with the Republican Party structure itself. In my 30-something years of experience in the Republican Party ranks I don’t have reason to believe they will ultimately prove successful.