Cover Story: Bob Barr plays Ralph Nader in Georgia and elsewhere
Could the Libertarian presidential candidate play the spoiler in 2008?
It's the biggest night of the year for Georgia Libertarians. Daniel Adams, the state party chairman, seems energized and a bit anxious as he crisscrosses the room greeting guests. In a few minutes, the Libertarian Party's 2008 presidential nominee is expected to arrive as the guest of honor, and Adams wants his group's chief fundraising banquet to exceed everyone's expectations.
Compared with most big-city political confabs, however, this one feels a bit, well, small-time. The Dunwoody hotel setting is nice enough, but the ballroom space is so cavernous it makes the modest crowd appear even smaller. The ill-fitting blazers and mismatched ties worn by some guests suggest a blue-collar demographic that's a far cry from the cliques of deep-pocketed lawyers and lobbyists who typically haunt such events. Then there are the guys who stand out because of their long hair or eccentric appearance, such as an older man wearing a black leather jacket and a black T-shirt dotted with white skulls.
It's no stretch to imagine that the largely male, suburban, middle-aged, outsiderish gathering of white folks wouldn't feel out of place at Dragon*Con. Which is fitting, since Dragon*Con founder Ed Kramer is among the attendees, dressed head-to-toe in black and wheeling about on an electric scooter.
When former Congressman Bob Barr and wife Jeri arrive at the reception, there's no public-address announcement, no Secret Service detail and no sudden crush of well-wishers seeking face time with the would-be president. Most of the people here have met Barr before and are content to wait as he makes his way around the room exchanging pleasantries, shaking hands and posing for photographs. The only TV cameraman at the event snags a quickie interview with the presidential candidate, then heads for the door.
The dinner itself begins a few minutes late. Adams explains excitedly that more chairs had to be brought in to accommodate the crowd. "I think we've got 100 people here," he enthuses.
As political parties go, the Libertarians can still seem painfully small potatoes. But in Barr, they – and a contingent of observers – believe they've got a candidate who might actually have an impact. The tight presidential race certainly could make votes for a third-party candidate decisive in any of a dozen or so battleground states – much as Ralph Nader's presence on the ballot in 2000 cost Al Gore Florida.
This year, even here in Georgia, strategists with the two major parties are keeping an eye on Barr's poll numbers for signs that he's siphoning votes away from Republican John McCain. If he takes away enough of them, Democrats say, he could put the state in their candidate's column for the first time since 1992.
Any discussion of Georgia's potential as a swing state is still largely academic with the election nearly two months away, and recent polls indicate the likelihood is shrinking. But veteran politicos acknowledge the possibility of – to employ a neo-cliché – a perfect storm in which new voter registration, Democratic soft-money campaigning and a mini-surge in Libertarian votes could conspire to tip our state to Barack Obama. If that turned out to be the case, though, Obama would likely be having a big night elsewhere, picking up electoral votes in other states where Barr is even more likely to make a difference.
Put simply, could arch-conservative Bob Barr actually have a hand in helping the Democrats win in November?
To paraphrase a well-worn campaign slogan: Yes he can.
Barr's conversion to the Libertarian Party since leaving Congress has come as little surprise even to longtime GOP colleagues. Those who know him well say he's always been a conservative first and Republican second. His remaining loyalty faded away after feeling his party had stabbed him in the back.
"Bob's always been independent-minded," says John Watson, a former Barr staffer who later served as Gov. Sonny Perdue's chief of staff. "He's never marched to a party platform."
In fact, Barr has always been something of a square peg. Born in Iowa, he grew up following his civil engineer father to exotic locations like Malaysia, Pakistan, Baghdad and Panama, finally graduating from high school in Tehran. After earning a law degree at Georgetown, he spent most of the '70s at the CIA before settling in Marietta, where he became a defense attorney and got involved in Republican politics.
Plucked from obscurity when Ronald Reagan appointed him U.S. attorney in 1986, Barr soon made a name for himself by prosecuting members of the Medellin drug cartel and sending Pat Swindall, an evangelical Republican congressman from DeKalb, to prison for a year on a perjury rap.
He burnished his conservative credentials with two years as president of the Southeastern Legal Foundation (the group that later successfully sued to have ex-President Bill Clinton's law license suspended) before launching himself into electoral politics.
When he first was elected to Congress, defeating six-term incumbent Buddy Darden, much of the credit went to the Grand Old Party. Like dozens of other new congressmen around the country, Barr was swept into office by the Republican Revolution of 1994 – orchestrated by then-House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, who represented the district next door.
Even as a congressman, Barr stood apart from the typical hail-fellow-well-met school of politician. He cultivated few close friends in Washington and rarely took part in the D.C. social scene. Most nights, he slept on a couch in his Capitol Hill office. At meet-and-greets in his Cobb district, he could seem stiff, sometimes humorless, not entirely comfortable making small talk with constituents.
According to associates, Barr had little interest in the usual perks available to members of Congress. A former adviser remembers him as being "all business, all the time" – not unpleasant, but certainly not the life of the party.
While Barr shies away from the usual glad-handing, though, he is drawn to the lure of television cameras. Where other congressmen passed their time cutting deals in smoke-filled rooms, Barr seemed most in his element making the rounds of Sunday-morning news shows, debating the issues of the day.
"The happiest I ever saw him," says a former staffer, "was in the 15 minutes after an appearance on 'Meet the Press' or 'Larry King Live.'"
For Barr, the central thrill of holding high office was taking part in the great political dialogue, mixing it up on the national stage. As a congressman, he relished the role of right-wing culture warrior, taking extreme, and sometimes outlandish, positions – calling for the impeachment of Clinton months before Monica; authoring the Defense of Marriage Act, which forbade federal recognition of gay unions; even proposing a ban on Wiccan ceremonies on Army bases.
Barr was in the fray on many of the issues that made social conservatives and Clinton-haters froth at the mouth: He bashed the National Endowment for the Arts, he railed against "partial-birth" abortion, he shouted down all arguments for gun control. In a particularly incongruous move for a future Libertarian candidate for president, he famously authored the 1998 "Barr Amendment," which attacked the right of D.C. voters to decide by referendum whether to legalize the use of medical marijuana. Not only did the measure prevent Initiative 59 from being carried out, but it forbade even counting the votes.
Barr's career as a congressman arguably jumped the shark during a 2002 fundraiser when the National Rifle Association board member accidentally fired an antique pistol inside a constituent's house, shattering a sliding-glass door. By then, his frequent talk-show appearances and dramatic declarations – John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban," should be charged with treason, convicted and put to death, he said in a speech – made him seem to some as a far-right version of then-Rep. Cynthia McKinney, an extremist more interested in getting attention than in governing.
Four terms in, Barr's national notoriety as a conservative firebrand had made him a handy foil for opposition fundraising. At the same time, he'd earned a reputation as something of a maverick. Not a reach-across-the-aisle maverick like McCain – Barr's had too much contempt for liberals for that – but rather an outspoken advocate for civil liberties who criticized the Bush administration's expansion of executive power and even called for the appointment of a "privacy czar" within the new Department of Homeland Security.
In 2001, when Democrats carried out a partisan redrawing of congressional seats, the late Georgia House Speaker Tom Murphy, who harbored a personal dislike for the former federal prosecutor, made sure Barr got drawn out of his home district in Cobb. He was instead thrown into the Gwinnett-heavy seat held by Rep. John Linder, a backbench GOP congressman with a reputation as a faithful party apparatchik. (The redistricting would quickly backfire for Democrats and then-Gov. Roy Barnes, resulting in the election of two new GOP congressmen, as well as a payback redrawing by Republicans a few years later.)
When Barr announced he would challenge Linder for the 7th District seat, his opponent used his outspokenness to paint him as a bloviating lightweight. "Bob has been on 'Crossfire' more than he's been on the House floor," cracked Linder during the 2002 campaign.
Barr also found that his political independence had won him few supporters within his own party. As he recalls, even his fellow Republicans conspired to keep him from returning to Washington. "There were overtures made to me by leadership in Congress not to run" for re-election, he says, careful not to name names.
"The Republican Party is interested in feathering its nest and staying in power and keeping within its ranks those who toe the party line," Barr explains. "I did not toe the party line with some regularity, and I think there were folks within the Republican establishment – not just here in Georgia, but nationally – who didn't appreciate that."
With more accuracy than many party-switchers, Barr can make the familiar claim that he didn't leave the Republican Party; the Republican Party left him.
For small-government conservatives, the GOP, in cravenly following the Bush administration, has led the country into a waking nightmare. In an interview, Barr ticks off the issues that concern him now – and it's not welfare mothers or Wiccans. He's outraged that air travelers might be subjected to intrusive, full-body X-rays. He's infuriated with Republican lawmakers and Bush-appointed judges who trash the notion of separation of powers with their "knee-jerk deference" to the administration. He's fed up with a Congress that passes one pork-stuffed budget after another, with no thought of controlling spending or shrinking government.
"Bob created and defined a personality for himself in Congress, which is pretty hard to do," says Chuck Clay, a former state legislator and onetime state GOP chairman who took over Barr's law partnership when he was named U.S. attorney. "But now that he's not in office, he's been able to focus on truly important issues rather than the politics."
His tipping point can be summed up with two words: Patriot Act. He joined the ranks of ex-Republicans largely in response to the expansion of government power that's occurred since 9/11 and that came at the expense of our civil liberties and the rule of law. Spurned by his own party in the 2002 elections, he also felt betrayed by an administration that spied illegally on American citizens after assuring Congress it would only use its enhanced surveillance powers on terrorist groups.
Quoting the novelist and capitalist Ayn Rand, Barr says individual privacy is the "essence of civilization," the fundamental underpinning of freedom.
"There has been such a dramatic increase in government power that there's virtually no more privacy left," he says.
Where Barr's congressional antics once brought him notoriety, his advocacy for the cause of civil liberty has earned him gravitas. Not long after losing his final re-election bid in 2002, he announced he'd begin consulting on privacy issues with the American Civil Liberties Union, a group pilloried – at least publicly – by most Republicans. While still in Congress, Barr had found himself siding with the ACLU against proposals for a national ID card and the infamous TIPS citizen-snitch program.
As a Creative Loafing columnist from 2003 to 2005, then writing opinion pieces for the AJC, Barr explained thoughtfully and persuasively why the rule of habeas corpus must be observed even for terrorists; why "sneak-and-peek" warrants should be illegal; why Congress shouldn't waste its time investigating steroid use; and how Republicans had become the party of big government and wanton spending.
He even began a public courtship with the Libertarian Party in the pages of CL, writing in 2004 about speaking at a party event: "On many of the issues comprising its platform, the Libertarian Party of Georgia has staked out a position strikingly in accord with what I perceive to be positions favored by mainstream Georgians." Later that year, he endorsed Libertarian presidential nominee Michael Badnarik and, in 2006, he formally joined the party.
Former associates say Barr's core beliefs and political convictions have actually changed very little. He's always harbored a Reaganesque distrust of government and has been a passionate supporter of the Second Amendment. But Barr seems to have left behind some of his more incendiary right-wing convictions, such as his zealous opposition to gay marriage. For several years now, he's advocated a partial repeal of his Defense of Marriage Act, arguing that each state should be allowed to decide the issue for itself.
His most visible about-face has been in the area of drug legalization. Once one of the country's most vocal proponents of the War on Drugs, Barr has since called for marijuana decriminalization and even lobbied for the reform of drug laws on behalf of the Marijuana Policy Project. While Libertarians had worked to defeat him in 2002 because of his anti-drug stance, party members seem to trust in his conversion.
If Barr still has a reactionary streak or a taste for political drama, it doesn't come across in conversation. Instead, he seems reasonable and serious – whether discussing immigration policy, tax plans or how to end the war in Iraq. "Bob is incredibly learned, well-read and scholarly," says former staffer Watson. "He's always thinking as a lawyer, with an eye toward the facts."
That ability to talk specifics regarding complex policy issues has friend and foe agreeing that if any third-party candidate has the rhetorical skill to make waves and shift votes in a televised presidential debate, it would be Bob Barr.
The difficulty for a third-party candidate to win an election in Georgia cannot be overstated.
The sole officeholder in the state who identifies as a Libertarian is a member of the Johns Creek City Council – and her post is officially nonpartisan. The party has managed to meet Georgia's strict ballot-access requirements only by consistently notching a few percentage points in little-watched Public Service Commission races. Historically, a vote for the Libertarian has been a protest vote, regardless of whose name is on the ballot.
And yet Libertarians have proved capable of influencing some high-profile contests. The most famous example was the 1992 Senate race, when Libertarian Jim Hudson's 3 percent showing forced Democratic incumbent Wyche Fowler into a runoff, in which he was upset by Republican Paul Coverdell. (A bit of trivia: Coverdell reached the general election that year by narrowly defeating a certain former U.S. attorney named Bob Barr.)
Now many Libertarians hope Barr can do something similar in the race for president.
"Barr has more of a national following than any candidate we've ever had," says Jack Cashin, Georgia's Libertarian candidate for U.S. senate in 1996 and governor in 1998. In both races, Cashin notched a relatively impressive 4 percent.
"I think here in Georgia, Barr could get 7 or 8 percent, which could throw the race to Obama – and I hope it does," adds Cashin, who says the Bush years have left him thoroughly disillusioned with Republican rule.
Barr himself dismisses any suggestion that he could be a spoiler for the GOP, insisting that he's likely to snatch votes equally from both major parties. But no one else – on either side of the aisle – seems to see it that way.
"Any votes Barr gets will come at the expense of John McCain," predicts Buddy Darden, the Democratic congressman Barr unseated in 1994.
Says Republican Chuck Clay: "People who identify as independents are the fastest-growing group in American politics. Anyone with the record of a Bob Barr is going to cause angst among Republicans."
University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock says Barr could have a big impact if the race stays tight through Election Day.
"Increasingly, it looks like Georgia isn't in play, but in a close state – and there are a number of those now – Bob Barr could affect the outcome," Bullock says. "To the extent that he gets votes, they'll come from John McCain. So, if we had a situation like we had in Florida in 2000, he could end up costing McCain the White House."
Even former Gov. Barnes gives props to Barr: "There are many things about what I call the 'new and refined Bob Barr' that appeal to me, such as his position on government surveillance, and which could resonate with Middle Georgia.
"If Bob gets 6 or 7 percent, and certainly if he gets 8 or 9 percent, he could give Georgia to Obama," Barnes says.
The question, of course, is whether Barr can capture that much of the vote. As of this writing, some seven weeks out from the election, Georgia's potential as a swing state seems to be dimming, but it hinges on a host of unknowns in a race that changes almost daily.
One obvious factor would be Obama's commitment of campaign resources in Georgia. Last week, the New York Times reported that the Democratic nominee had pulled his ads from Georgia airwaves. Most recently, the campaign confirmed it had shifted some workers from Georgia to North Carolina.
Another unknown is the effectiveness of the Obama campaign in registering new voters. With dozens of offices scattered around the state, and a wildly optimistic goal of adding 400,000 new Georgia voters to the polls, the campaign could be preparing to pull the rug out from under the GOP – but we likely won't know until Election Day.
Then there's the Senate candidacy of former state Rep. Jim Martin, who was recruited by national Democrats to take on unpopular GOP incumbent Saxby Chambliss. If the well-funded Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee decides to spend millions in soft money to help defeat Chambliss, the impending advertising blitz would likely boost all Democratic candidates. The potential – if improbable – result could be a rare "trickle-up" effect in which a Senate campaign actually helps garner more votes for a presidential candidate.
In the spring, soon after his nomination, polls showed the former congressman as high as 8 percent. More recently, however, Georgia seems to be turning redder, with McCain's poll numbers surging and Barr's dropping.
But there are still a number of battleground states where Barr is more likely to play a spoiler's role. His poll numbers currently hover a little above 2 percent nationally, but in Libertarian-friendly New Hampshire, where McCain and Obama are within a point of each other, an August Zogby poll put Barr at 11 percent. Polls suggest the two major-party nominees are virtually tied in Nevada, Colorado and Virginia, where Barr has polled between 5 percent and 10 percent.
Another former Georgia congressperson, Green Party nominee Cynthia McKinney, barely registers in most national polls. But Nader, this time running as an independent, is running between 2 percent and 3 percent nationally. There's an outside chance Nader could hurt Obama in left-leaning battleground states, including Oregon, Wisconsin and, possibly again, Florida.
The numbers could fly out the window if Barr and Nader are invited to take part in nationally televised debates later this month. Given their low poll numbers, that seems unlikely.
Rank-and-file Libertarians privately admit they'd be satisfied if Barr's presence in the race pushes the other candidates to deal more seriously with such issues as privacy rights, drug legalization and reducing the size of government.
Ask Barr what he hopes to achieve by running for president and he dutifully says he's in it to win it.
"We are in a time of great moral crisis," he told the ballroom full of fellow Libertarians a few weeks back. "The Libertarian message is as mainstream as you can get. If we can get into the debates and level the playing field, I think we can beat those guys."