Friday, April 4, 2008

Bob Barr for President?

Via Below the Beltway, Dave Weigel is reporting that it seems like Bob Barr is almost certainly going to announce a run for President under the Libertarian Party banner this weekend.

For reasons I'd rather not get into, I have a better understanding of Bob Barr than probably the vast majority of libertarian bloggers out there (though not as much as some), so I think I should probably comment on his prospective run, which is creating a lot of division within the post-Ron Paul libertarian community.

The first thing I would say is that the LP could do a lot worse than Congressman Barr. Although he most certainly had a less-than-libertarian track record in Congress on things ranging from the Drug War to gay rights, he has clearly experienced a change of heart on many or most of those issues. Many libertarians are rightly suspicious of this conversion.

I can say with a pretty strong degree of certainty that those suspicions are incorrect. Although I have no idea what the former Congressman personally thinks of gay rights on a local level these days, he has quite clearly come out against the Federal Marriage Amendment, and did so almost immediately upon its introduction- and before he joined the LP.

As others have noted, he has also been fairly open about the fact that he has changed his position completely on the War on Drugs. In addition, he is now an extremely vocal opponent of the Patriot Act.

Many libertarians have noted that although Barr, as a Congressman, took several significant steps to weaken the Act, those steps were horribly insufficient. While this is true, it's worth noting that the Patriot Act was passed just weeks after 9/11, at a time when rational thinking was (understandably) almost impossible to come by; the emotions of that day were just too fresh in our memories. It was clear to most people that there had been horrible failures of government, and that those failures led to the attacks; thus, steps needed to be taken to prevent future attacks. For the average non-libertarian at the time (a group in which I include myself), and I believe, even for many scared libertarians, the Patriot Act seemed to be a strong step in that direction, regardless of its flaws. That Barr - at a time when he wasn't even a libertarian (small "l" or otherwise) - was one of the few people rational enough to see that it went too far and needed to be pulled back is to me an extremely strong argument in his favor.

Moreover, Barr has done an extraordinary amount of work to try and weaken or end the Patriot Act since he left Congress. His dedication to civil liberties in recent years has been far more than just a token effort done to bolster his libertarian credentials; frankly, his record on that front in recent years is something that ought to be the envy of just about every single libertarian and Progressive.

Based on my somewhat limited knowledge of the Congressman, many of Barr's positions evolved into something resembling libertarianism before he joined the LP, at a time when he was still nominally a member of the Republican Party. For this reason, I am quite willing to take Barr at his word that his current positions on issues are in fact his sincerely held beliefs rather than positions taken as a way to earn the LP nomination.

On balance, I believe Barr will be a more credible proponent of liberty than Ron Paul was, although he will lack the glamor and media attention that come with a run in a highly competitive, high-profile Republican primary campaign.

Regarding the Iraq War, Barr will be able to speak in a knowledgeable way that Ron Paul could not, which will give him far more credibility on the issue than Paul was able to get outside of anti-war activist circles. As such, he will be much less susceptible to charges of just being "anti-troop" or of simply "blaming America first."

In addition, he will not have the obsession with the Federal Reserve that Paul had, which hurt his ability to appeal to mainstream voters.

On gun rights, there are few people in the country who can speak with greater credibility than Congressman Barr.

This is not to say that Barr is an ideal libertarian candidate, however. He continues to be a vocal supporter of greater restrictions on immigration, a position which I find deeply antithetical to liberty in this country.

Moreover, he will be subject to some of the same charges of racism that Ron Paul was subject to in the days after the newsletter story broke. In 1998, he caused a not-insignificant stir when he gave the keynote address to the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group that is often derided - correctly, I think - as a white supremacist organization (the group is the successor to the "White Citizens' Councils). Barr attempted to distance himself from the organization, but it was a story that will be well-remembered by a number of opinion-makers, as the story broke at a time when Barr was one of the impeachment managers in the Bill Clinton impeachment trial.

I should note, however, that Barr was only one of several then-high-profile politicians to be tied to the group, and that Mark Pitcovich of the Anti-Defamation League largely exonerated him from the charges due to his vociferous denunciations of the group as well as some other mitigating circumstances. In addition, Barr will be able to credibly argue that he was a much different person at the time, and that he should not be judged based solely on his actions as Congressman. This is a defense which Ron Paul did not use, and could not have used very credibly given his continued ties to Lew Rockwell.

According to an old Dave Neiwert post, Barr also has connections to the JBS. This is something that troubles me - if it is true, and if those connections continue. Of course, this was a problem that Ron Paul had as well, to a much larger extent. If Barr has ended those connections with the JBS, then I believe he will credibly be able to mitigate any charges of racism that may be thrown his way.

Finally, although Barr's positions on many social issues have changed, it is impossible to completely overlook his staunchly theocratic voting record in Congress. To the extent he disavows that record, I am willing to believe him; however, he has not yet faced questions on a number of issues related to that record, so it is unclear whether he still holds some of those positions. I understand that he continues to be staunchly pro-life; however, abortion is an issue on which I believe there is much room for disagreement amongst libertarians, and I even tend to vascillate regularly as to where I stand on that issue.

On the whole, however, I think Barr would be a credible spokesman for liberty in this country, and may be able to get just enough support to get included in the Presidential debates.

There will be those in the LP who are upset that Barr could come in and take the nomination after the party has already had its primaries. On that, I will not comment, as it is a bit too much "inside baseball" for someone like me who is fairly agnostic about the existence of the LP and understands little about LP rules and procedures.

More reactions at Memeorandum.