Thursday, June 05, 2008

Will Bob Barr and the Libertarians Be a Factor in the Presidential Race?

By Stuart Rothenberg

It was sometime toward the end of Saturday afternoon, May 24, that I concluded that the Libertarian Party is about as politically tone-deaf as anyone or any organization that I have ever observed.

I had just watched a few hours of the party’s presidential nominating convention on C-SPAN and listened to party leaders falling all over themselves about how former Republican turned Libertarian Bob Barr would carry the party to new heights.

And I had heard Barr’s running mate, professional sports handicapper/gambler Wayne Allyn Root, say that he couldn’t have a better teacher than Barr to learn from and then mumble to those around him that he would be the party’s nominee for president in 2012. (Root finished third in the presidential balloting and threw his support to Barr after the former Georgia Congressman agreed to pick Root as his vice president.)

You’d think that, at the very least, Libertarians would look coldbloodedly at their own status and avoid the usual delusional propaganda that we all are force-fed by Democrats and Republicans. After all, they are a mere asterisk on the American political landscape, and some of the convention participants were funny and self-deprecating. But no, even the Libertarians are glued to the ridiculous rhetoric that they are “in this to win.”

The Libertarian Party nominated Barr on the sixth ballot, concluding, apparently, that his political experience and name recognition would give the party the visibility and credibility that supporters crave. Talk about a total misread of Barr and of politics.

Barr, who has logged plenty of airtime on TV since he first was elected to Congress in 1994, certainly will get some media attention between now and November. But no matter what some people say, not all media coverage is good media coverage.

The Almanac of American Politics 2000, authored by conservative Michael Barone, called Barr “humorless,” “pessimistic” and “sarcastic.” “He says that he has no close friends on Capitol Hill and usually sleeps in his office,” Barone wrote of Barr.

The three-times-married, four-term conservative Republican Congressman has plenty of baggage (including speaking to a white supremacist group), a long record of contradictions — he introduced the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 but now opposes it and says he will work to repeal it — and a reputation for being arrogant and polarizing.

So with Americans apparently unhappy with the direction of the country and disapproving of the job the Republican president and a Democratic Congress is doing, the Libertarian Party has nominated a ticket that includes a prickly, cold, personally unappealing former Republican Congressman and a fast-talking, self-promoting bookmaker who describes himself as the “King of Vegas.”

Root’s own Web site includes a quote from comedian Bill Maher about the political hopeful: “He is loud, colorful, opinionated, often outrageous and controversial.” Oh great.

Root, by the way, is the author of “Betting to Win on Sports” and “The King of Vegas’ Guide to Gambling: How to Win Big at Poker, Casino Gambling & Life!” Publishers Weekly said his 2005 book, “Millionaire Republican: Why Rich Republicans Get Rich — and How You Can Too,” “is rarely coherent” and “feels like an infomercial harangue interspersed with the sort of off-the-wall rant that you would expect if you asked your bookie for his political philosophy.”

Now that’s just what most Americans want in a vice president of the United States and what the Libertarian Party needs.

Four days after Barr was nominated, I was reading through the Libertarian Party’s Web site and came across this gem under 2002 in “Our History”: “The ‘Incumbent Killer’ strategy was used to control elections the LP could not yet win. It led to the defeat of Republican Congressman Bob Barr and Democratic Senator Max Cleland.”

Leaving aside the party’s dubious and delusional suggestion that it defeated those two Members of Congress, as well as three gubernatorial candidates and another U.S. Senator, isn’t there something strange about the party nominating for president the same person that its Web site is bragging about defeating just six years earlier?

No, Barr, who announced in December that he was leaving the GOP for the Libertarians and had no plans to run for office, won’t be a factor in November.

People who will vote for Barr won’t vote for either Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) or Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) under any circumstance, so the Libertarians aren’t taking votes away from either man. This is a big country, and the Libertarians may well get half a million votes. But out of 120 million or so cast, that’s a drop in the bucket. In presidential politics, the Libertarian Party has established itself as nothing more than a party of protest.

Some voters have always thrown away their votes, casting them for parties and candidates who have no chance of winning. That’s fine, of course. It’s a free country, and if some voters want to make a statement about Iraq, drug legalization, taxes, the two-party system or whatever, that’s their right. But the Libertarians deserve no more attention than any other largely irrelevant third party — which isn’t much at all.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 2, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.