Bob Barr for President?

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[Tim Lee]

Hi, my name's Tim Lee and I'm one of those think tank people Megan warned you about. I'd like to thank her for letting me share her soapbox for the week. You can learn more about me at the link above.

Today the Libertarian Party nominated Bob Barr as its presidential standard-bearer for 2008. I've got a love-hate relationship with the Libertarian Party. As a small-L libertarian, I typically find the major party options to be wretched, and this year's options are especially bad. So it will be nice to have someone on the ticket who I can be reasonably sure will mostly take positions I generally agree with.

Unfortunately, the LP has a knack for picking candidates who are not just uninspiring, but often acutely embarrassing. The 2004 candidate, Michael Badnarik, was a low point. As I wrote at the time, despite billing himself as a "constitutional scholar," he was completely clueless about American government. His speeches and interviews were chock full of assertions that could have been corrected with 30 seconds of fact-checking, and his overall message was that of a paranoid, government-hating crank.

And because presidential elections are virtually the only time a lot of people pay attention to politics, a lot of people wind up associating libertarianism, the ideology, with whomever the LP chooses to nominate every four years. And since the LP's candidates are often clueless, politically tone-deaf, or otherwise unappealing, small-L libertarians get stuck trying to explain that, no, most libertarians aren't for legalizing child pornography, and no, not all of us have turned our skin blue by drinking a "homemade antibiotic laced with silver."

Bob Barr isn't in the same category. He understands the basics of public policy and appears able to get through an interview without embarrassing himself. However, he seems to have a whole different category of baggage: questions about whether he's actually a libertarian. During his tenure in Congress, Barr showed few libertarian tendencies, voting for the Defense of Marriage Act, opposing medical marijuana, and signing on to the Patriot Act. I saw him speak here in Missouri last year and he gave a pretty convincing Road to Damascus speech, but libertarians are justifiably suspicious.

Personally, I'm doubly wary of supporting the guy after the Ron Paul fiasco. Like Will Wilkinson, I gave money to Paul in 2007, before I learned of his continuing association with the bigots who sent out racist newsletters under Paul's name. In retrospect, Paul's anti-immigration rhetoric and his tendency toward conspiracy theories ("Wall Street bankers" are a staple villain in his stump speeches) should have been red flags that temperamentally, Paul was more a conservative nationalist than a libertarian even if he happened to have reached libertarian conclusions on a lot of policy issues.

The issue section of Barr's campaign website makes me nervous that we're in for a repeat of that fiasco. It's incredibly thin—a dozen or so bullet points in total—and one of the four categories is "secure our borders," which suggests Barr may harbor the same kind of borderline xenophobia that has infected both the Paul campaign and much of the modern conservative movement. That's not the impression I want voters to get of libertarianism.

Ultimately, I wish the LP would just go away. The structure of American elections dooms third parties to perpetual failure and obscurity, and that, in turn, creates a vicious cycle where the most talented activists and potential candidates go elsewhere, causing the party to be even more out of touch and politically tone-deaf in the next election. But given that the party is going to nominate somebody, Barr was probably the best choice. He's a reasonably credible candidate, he's got decent media skills, and so far, at least, I haven't seen him take any positions that I strongly disagree with (since his road-to-damascus conversion in 2006, anyway). But I don't plan to support his candidacy because while he may be the least-bad option on this November's ballot, he certainly isn't the kind of person I want associated with libertarianism. And every vote he gets will mean more visibility for the embarrassing candidate the party is likely to nominate in 2012.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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