Monday, May 12, 2008

Bob Barr, non-Elephant
(See what I did there? You didn't get these read to you as a kid? Or see "Fletch"? Anyway, remember to tip your waitress.)

About two weeks ago, when I was actually worried that the Clintons would manage to muscle Barack Obama aside and take the Democratic nomination, I contemplated with a certain satisfaction the idea of voting in November for Libertarian spoiler candidate Bob Barr, who had announced the formation of an exploratory commission last month and officially declared his candidacy today, over Hillary. (Remember: I'm in New York, my vote doesn't count, so I can indulge myself however.)

During the 1990s, Barr--a former CIA analyst and federal prosecutor--easily would have made my bottom five most detested Republicans. He was a Clinton impeachment manager and a fervent champion of the idiotic "war on drugs." I once attended a Congressional hearing on instability in foreign financial markets at which the financier George Soros spoke; Barr, a member of the committee, used all his questioning time to attack Soros for his Open Society Institute's support for drug decriminalization. With his moral scolding and little mustache, he came across as an unholy hybrid of low-level Nazi and the guy at the drug store thirty years ago who yelled at you for reading comic books.

As revelations of Barr's various hypocrisies leaked out--the Clinton persecutor who had cheated his way through three marriages, the staunch abortion foe who'd paid for one--his star seemed to dim. He lost his Congressional seat in 2002 thanks to both redistricting and, ironically, the opposition of the Libertarian Party, which aired ads attacking Barr's ferocious resistance to medical marijuana. By then, Barr was beginning to show signs of political evolution: he attacked what he regarded as the Bush administration's excessive encroachments on civil liberties after 9/11. Losing his seat seemed to really liberate Barr (no pun intended): he became a high-profile member and paid lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union, and endorsed the Libertarian presidential ticket in 2004, co-created the American Freedom Agenda, an effort to drag the Republican Party back to its small-l libertarian orientation, and finally repudiated his former support of the war on drugs, taking a role as lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project. He explained the switch by saying, "The tremendous growth of government power since 9/11... has forced me and other conservatives to go back and take a renewed look at how big and powerful we want the government to be in people's lives."

Like every third-party candidate with some name recognition, Barr apparently thinks he can win a plurality of votes. He can't, of course. But he'll cause John McCain a few headaches, and if Obama runs as strongly as polling shows he might in libertarian-leaning western states like Montana and Alaska, Barr could tilt those contests. Beyond the horse-race stuff, though, I'm fascinated by his personal evolution. As is true of Ron Paul (whose support he obviously hopes to co-opt), Barr doesn't strike me as someone with whom I'd have very much in common politically--and part of me still gapes in disbelief that I'm writing nice things about someone I considered an asshole of the first rank just ten years ago. But he could raise some important issues in this political year, and that's something we should be able to get behind.

(Yeah, I know that in theory this is also true of Ralph Nader. But in his fourth try for the White House, all anyone sees with Ralph is his ego, and the absurdity of his "cause." If Barr is gearing up for his fourth campaign twelve years from now, I'm sure we'll all be heartily sick of him too.)

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