With the announcement that he'll seek the Libertarian Party’s 2008 presidential nomination, former Georgia Republican congressman Bob Barr has added another twist to an already crazy election year.
Barr, who hopes to win the LP’s top spot at the party’s convention that starts Thursday, May 22, in Denver, has an impressive resume that backs up his claim that he's the most qualified presumptive candidate of any party.
A lawyer, former U.S. Attorney and ex-CIA official, Barr, 59, was born in Iowa, but thanks to his military parents he lived in such exotic locales as Lima and Teheran, where he graduated from high school. He served in the House from 1995 to 2003, where he was known as a hard-line conservative who hated the IRS and fought tirelessly for privacy rights and other civil liberties.
Barr is far from the perfect libertarian. Many libertarians have serious issues with him over things like his vote in favor of the Patriot Act (which he now regrets) and his zealous support of the war on drugs, which he has backed away from.
Meanwhile, Republicans are mad at Barr because they fear as a third party candidate he could do to John McCain what Ralph Nader did to Al Gore in 2000 -- steal just enough votes to keep McCain out of the White House. When I talked to Barr by telephone on Thursday, he was on the grounds of the United Nations, where he said nothing is very good -- even the food.
Q: Why did you decide to run?
A: I decided to run for several reasons. One, because I want to restore the Constitution to our federal government. It seems to have been completely forgotten and disregarded by Congress and by this administration. I believe in the Constitution. I believe in separation of powers. I believe in the rule of law. I believe in limited government. And these are principles and policies that apparently neither the national Republican nor the national Democrat Party believes in. I believe great damage is being done to our Constitution and I see no remedy at all, no likelihood of that changing if we rely on the two parties to field our candidates for national office.
The Libertarian Party alone among America’s political parties truly stands for smaller government and maximized individual liberty. I believe if we don’t take a stand now and try to reverse course, we may never have the opportunity again. I think there are a number of factors coming together for this cycle that give us a much greater likelihood for success than any previous election.
Q: What major issues will you emphasize in your campaign that the other candidates will not go anywhere near?
A: They all come back to smaller government, whether we are talking about the power of government or the cost of government. So ultimately every single issue comes down to shrinking the size, the power, the scope and the cost of the federal government. I would -- unlike either of the two major party candidates -- immediately, upon taking office in January, shrink the size of the federal government, beginning with the executive office of the president to the greatest extent possible, even before going to the Congress. I would institute a freeze in the executive branch and begin cutting back. I would send a message to the Congress that any bill that would be sent to me that would increase the size of the federal government would be vetoed -- and that means as well any piece of legislation that would purport to raise the national debt ceiling. I would immediately instruct the Department of Justice to once again respect the writ of habeas corpus and respect the rule of law.
Q: Is there any one issue or event or trend that made you abandon the Republican Party -- besides the usual ones: its failure to shrink the federal government, the spending and the failure to follow a prudent foreign policy?
A: Well, the Republican Party abandoned me and other libertarian-leaning Republicans. Perhaps more than anything else, aside from those things that you enumerated, , which are very important -- and that is the unashamed growth in government spending under the Republican Congress and a Republican president and the anomaly that that presents. More than anything else, it is the utter disregard by this administration for fundamental constitutional principles of governance; to act according to the notions that the president doesn’t have to obey the law, that a president is not bound by court decision or act of Congress in what he does, is extremely destructive to the very foundation of our country. To witness, as we saw a year and a half ago the Attorney General of the United States, Alberto Gonzales at the time, annunciate the proposition that the writ of habeas corpus is no longer important -- to me these are defining issues.
Q: If I had asked you to define your politics in 1998, how would you have characterized them?
A: Conservative, but Republican.
Q: How would you define them today?
A: Conservative; the way I define conservative, which is fundamental respect for the Constitution, the rule of law and the smallest government necessary.
Q: What’s left of your conservative social views, if anything, that would give loyal libertarians pause today?
A: Well, we agree on the fundamental principle of shrinking the power of the government and maximizing individual liberty. I do not wholeheartedly embrace the notion, for example, though, that the government cannot define any social relationship. Some libertarians believe rather strongly that the government should not even define marriage -- even the state government. I have no problem with the people of a state defining a relationship known as marriage. I believe that ought to be up to the states, not the federal government. That would be an example of where there would be a difference in degree to which we would apply the fundamental libertarian philosophy of maximized individual liberty and minimized government power.
Q: What is your position on the war on drugs, which has always been the elephant in the room that nobody running for president has dared to talk about for the last 30 or 40 years? It’s been a continuing war against the rights and liberties of Americans, yet no one touches it.
A: We do need to start addressing it. I do not think that the American people are ready to embrace the notion that there ought to be across-the board legalization of drugs. But I do think we need to begin rolling back the massive government power structure that has been built up pursuant to the war on drugs, which has not proved to be a success, certainly. Therefore, I think we need to certainly respect states rights and decisions by the people in an area such as medicinal marijuana. If the people of California, for example, decide that there is an appropriate place for the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes and they pass a law to that affect, that ought to be respected by the federal government. In other words, I think we can start this process of vesting the power to decide what people want to do with their own lives as long as they don’t endanger anyone else by at least beginning to devolve power from the federal government to the states. That would be an important first step.
Q: Libertarians are generally against our interventionist foreign policy in Iraq. Are you?
A: I believe the occupation of Iraq -- where we have a presence in a foreign country that effectively manages that country and provides the fundamental basis on which that country and government exists and operates -- is not something that is sound policy and is not consistent with the historical norms of a national defense policy. So I think that we need to -- and I would as president -- begin immediately and significantly drawing down our military and economic presence in Iraq for two reasons: One, because it is not in our interest to nation-build or to occupy foreign lands and, secondly, if we would ever wish to have the Iraqi government take responsibility for its own affairs, we necessarily have to remove the security blanket that right now makes it very easy for them not to do so. In other words, they are never going to assume responsibility for their own affairs as long as we are there propping them up.
Q: Some libertarians will say it was OK for the United States to go to Afghanistan and beat up on the Taliban and destroy the al-Qaida training camps there but that the Iraq war never should have been mounted. Do you make any distinction between Afghanistan and Iraq?
A: I think there are differences. I’m not an isolationist. If we have evidence that a nation or a nongovernmental entity has been engaged in acts that pose a clear and present threat to the United States or to our forces, we have every right, defensively, to take action to remove that threat, to neutralize that threat. That may very well have been the case in Afghanistan. But that is certainly not the case for a continued massive presence in Afghanistan.
With regard to Iraq, I actually voted for the resolution on Iraq. But it was presented certainly as something very different from what it’s turned out to be. It was presented as an authorization to use force to accomplish a specific goal, to meet a specific threat that was related to us as very real and very present. What the administration has done is completely at odds with that. Of course, there was no evidence at all, once we went in there, of a threat that they assured us was there. But even aside from that, the resolution they presented to the Congress had nothing to do with a multi-year occupation of a country.
Q: Ron Paul's run as a libertarian Republican earned his ideas a lot of free media time. He attracted a surprisingly strong Internet following, especially by the young, and he raised lots of money. Did Congressman Paul’s relative success encourage you in any way?
A: It certainly encourages us. It indicates that there is a significant reservoir of both participatory and financial support for a libertarian message. I think Ron Paul provides a road map -- not the only one -- as how to successfully tap into those resources out there. The young people, particularly, the use of the Internet to organize and raise money I think provide very valuable lessons that we intend to use.
Q: Ron Paul’s initial success came because his stand against the war on Iraq in the early debates attracted a lot of attention to him. Nobody knew who he was, and then all of a sudden Ron Paul became a hero. Then people seemed to like his message of limited government and weaker government and lower taxes. Does that make sense to you?
A: It does. Even though the Iraq issue was one that because of its elements at the time, and now certainly also, caught people’s attention, it simply caused them to take a harder look at Ron and recognize that there actually are a number of issues that he is very adept at and very knowledgeable about, even though it was Iraq that caught their attention. His notion of the artificiality of the current economic situation; his focus, occasionally, on the massive trade deficits that we run, and the investment and borrowing from foreign nations that’s mortgaging our future and reducing our influence abroad -- these are very complex, very substantive issues that Ron would talk about and I think it caused people to realize that there really was some substance and real ideas there that need to be addressed far and above just Iraq.
Q: Ron Paul is a former Libertarian Party presidential candidate and still a favorite son of the LP, I think. Is there any major difference between you and him that libertarians will find favorable or unfavorable?
A: I’m not really sure. I’m sure there are differences but I’ll leave that up to other folks to make the comparison. Ron is a good friend of mine. I knew him very well while in Congress together and I consider him a friend and a mentor.
Q: What makes you qualified to be president?
A: I believe very strongly that I am qualified to be president because I have a very solid background in different branches of government that have given me very substantial insights into the workings of government, that have given me a very substantial background in knowing the power of government and the extent of that power and how it can be diminished. I served in the intelligence business with the CIA. I’ve worked and lived overseas and have a firm grasp of international relations, both in theory and practice. I have worked as a presidentially appointed United States attorney at the Department of Justice, so I have a very firm background and grasp of issues regarding the Constitution and the laws of this land and their judicial structure. I served in the Congress for eight years and I have a very firm grasp of the legislative process. Among the current crop of candidates, I have a very diverse and more solid and more relevant background than any of the other candidates brings, including Mr. McCain.
Q: Assuming you get the Libertarian Party nomination, how will you measure your success as a candidate?
A: There will be several benchmarks. One is securing support generally in order to participate in the presidential debates -- that will be extremely important; also, whether or not we will be able to develop a strong and very diverse geographically and demographically base of support across the country, primarily through the use of the Internet. There will be certain very clear financial benchmarks that we will have. We are going to prioritize our effort in various states. We don’t have a lot of time -- basically about five months from the time of the convention -- and we’re going to have a lot of ground to cover and a lot of people to reach. We’re going to prioritize. At the end of the day, our priorities will be to win; secondly to open up the political system so that the Libertarian Party truly becomes a consistent player at the national level; and thirdly, to have raised the level of debate considerably above where it is now in this presidential race.