Potential ‘spoiler’ lacks mass appeal
There’s little evidence in Bob Barr’s office that the former Republican congressman is on the verge of running for president.
There are no throngs of volunteers. Telephones do not ring off the hook. On a recent afternoon, a lone reporter paged through American Rifleman magazine while waiting for Barr to return from Starbucks.
“Oh, we’re very busy!” chirped his receptionist, who was surfing the Web for tourist spots Barr might visit on a trip to England.
More than a month after Barr, 59, set up an “exploratory committee” to gauge how many Americans would vote for him as a Libertarian presidential candidate, he is still considering whether to enter the race.
The world inside the Beltway, it seems, is indifferent.
“Unless he commits a felony between now and November, no one will ever remember he ran for president,” said Charlie Cook, political analyst and editor of the Cook Political Report.
Yet there are rumblings among Republicans that Barr could steal crucial votes from John McCain in a tight November election. Sean Hannity, the conservative talk show host, has branded Barr a “spoiler,” and a Newsweek contributing editor, George F. Will, has warned that Barr could be “ruinous” to McCain in the same way that Ralph Nader was to Al Gore in 2000.
With less than two weeks before the Libertarian Party selects its presidential nominee, Barr will discuss his plans at a news conference Monday in Washington.
Perhaps best known as the Republican member of Congress who led the impeachment effort against President Clinton in 1999, Barr was most recently in the public eye as the guy who ate cheese in “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.”
A National Rifle Assn. board member who works with the American Civil Liberties Union, Barr is no mainstream conservative.
Since representing Georgia’s 7th Congressional District from 1995 to 2003, Barr has reinvented himself as a forceful critic of the Bush administration, crusading for smaller government and protection of civil liberties. “Shrinking the size, the scope, the power and the cost of government” is his campaign mantra.
Barr, who joined the Libertarian Party in 2006, identified his target voters as “disaffected Republicans, true conservatives,” but conceded that his odds of winning were “certainly long.” But, he said, Republicans and Democrats “have no God-given right” to be the only parties that present national candidates.
“Your vote for a candidate of principle is never a wasted vote,” he said.
He spoke with disdain for mainstream politicians and pundits.
“Maybe it’s important that Sen. Obama does not know how to bowl, or that Hillary Clinton can wolf down a shot of whiskey,” he said. “But many people I speak with have a deep dissatisfaction. . . . There’s a sense that government keeps getting bigger and bigger. To the extent that people have a choice, it’s the choice of voting for the party of big government or the party of bigger government.”
Barr, who was born in Iowa and graduated from high school in Iran, does not appear to have a strong local base. He moved to Georgia when President Reagan appointed him U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia.
He does not fit the conventional model of the Southern politician.
“Humorless, pessimistic, sarcastic to the point that his wife beeps him when he is on TV, ‘Smile, honey,’ ” is how the 2002 edition of the Almanac of American Politics describes him. “He says he has no close friends on Capitol Hill and usually sleeps in his office.”
Barr upholds individual rights, but he doesn’t think too highly of individuals: The first law of his nationally syndicated radio show, “Bob Barr’s Laws of the Universe,” is: “The world is full of idiots.”
He reserves particular scorn for the Republican Party. In virtually every important area, he said, President Bush “told the American people one thing and did another thing”: He promised to cap government spending but increased the federal budget from $1.9 trillion to $3.1 trillion. He promised to withdraw from “nation-building” but ended up mired in a lengthy occupation of Iraq.
Barr’s evolution from Republican to Libertarian can be traced back to Bush administration policies after Sept 11. Government intrusion became “so pervasive and so oppressive,” he said, that he reconsidered areas in which he had previously accepted a greater degree of government power.
“Every person in their heart is a libertarian about something,” he said, whether they want to home-school their children, run a small business or choose what lightbulbs to install in the living room.
Though he has more name recognition than other Libertarian candidates for president and might have the best chance of attracting Republicans who supported Ron Paul, Barr faces obstacles in his pursuit of the nomination.
As a Republican, he voted for the Patriot Act, was an uncompromising proponent of the war on drugs, and was a chief sponsor of the Defense of Marriage Act, which blocked any federal recognition of same-sex couples married by the states.
To appease Libertarian critics, Barr openly admitted that he regretted voting for the Patriot Act. Since 2002 he has worked as a lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project, a cannabis policy reform group, and in 2004 he testified before Congress against an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage.
Many of Barr’s views would not appeal to Republicans, political experts say.
“To the extent that there is broader dissatisfaction with McCain, that people are hungering for a different kind of Republicanism, Barr isn’t the man to capture it,” said Roy L. Behr, a political consultant and coauthor of “Third Parties in America: Citizen Response to Major Party Failure.” “He is absolutely unpredictable to most Republicans.”
Last week, Barr presented his pitch at a Rotary Club luncheon in the affluent Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs.
It was a dream audience for Barr: conservative residents of a new city that seceded from an Atlanta county in 2005 in a conflict over government bureaucracy.
The crowd listened attentively as Barr outlined the importance of limiting government power. Some nodded when he critiqued the dismal state of national political debate. Everyone applauded as he stepped off the podium.
But would anyone actually vote for him?
“No,” said William K. Snellings, the club’s president. “It ain’t going to happen. . . . I agree with almost everything he says, but a vote for him is a vote for Obama or Clinton.”