Libertarians At A Crossroads

Political junkie that I am, there's little I like more than a third-party nominating convention. I particularly enjoyed watching portions of the Libertarian Party (LP) convention on CSPAN over the long weekend. While it didn't approach the 2000 Reform Party gathering for pure political theater, it was a fascinating chance to see people struggling with the direction of a movement.

The LP has an opportunity to vault significantly into national prominence this year. But to do so, it had to embrace former Republican Congressman Bob Barr of Georgia, an interloper parachuting in to take advantage of the party's natiowide ballot-access operation.

Barr has a significant libertarian bent, ideologically. But he holds or has held positions contrary to many libertarian ideals -- on the PATRIOT Act, drug-war prosecution, and gay marriage, among others.

However, Barr has a gravitas and following that the LP has never had leading the party. And another Republican congressman, Ron Paul, has demonstrated how many potential supporters -- and how much potential campaign funding -- is out there for a candidate offering a right/libertarian message. Paul has received more than a million votes in GOP primaries and caucuses, which is more than any Libertarian candidate has ever gotten in November. And the LP has never seen anything like the millions in contributions Paul has received, or the devoted volunteer activism.

If Barr can catch hold of that movement (particularly if Paul endorses him after, say, staging a walk-out of the September GOP convention with his delegates), he could easily force himself into the media coverage, and perhaps even the Presidential debates. He could very easily top the 5 percent mark in November to qualify the party for public funds in 2012.

A host of candidates were vying for the LP nomination prior to Barr announcing his intentions just before the convention. At the candidates' debate Saturday evening, and in the candidates' speeches Sunday, there were repeated appeals to the delegates (some 600+) not to sell out the party to Barr.

On the first ballot, it was clear that there were three significant challengers: Barr; longtime Libertarian activist Mary Ruwart; and Las Vegas sports-betting celebrity Wayne Allyn Root. Root is also a former Republican. It increasingly became clear that where Root's delegates went, the nomination would go.

Other, minor candidates dropped out in successive ballots (as per LP rules) -- including former Democratic candidate Sen. Mike Gravel, and Massachusetts's own George Phillies. None subsequently endorsed the interloper. Christine Smith, upon being eliminated, took to the microphone to bad-mouth Barr: "Bob Barr is not a Libertarian -- we don't trust you." One-time Green Party nomination-seeker Mike Jingozian endorsed Gravel. Medical-marijuana advocate Steve Kubby endorsed Ruwart. (Gravel did not endorse, but CSPAN caught him in conversation admitting that he voted for Root after being eliminated.)

Between ballots, CSPAN frequently caught Ruwart lobbying delegates, and three things were striking. First, that the frustration and antipathy toward Barr, from Ruwart herself, and of many of the delegates, seemed strong and growing. Second, that Barr and his people seemed confident and less active -- suggesting that they were solidifying things behind the scenes. And third, Root and his advocates were seldom anywhere to be seen -- suggesting that he was involved in whatever Barr was doing in back rooms.

Meanwhile, the delegates supporting the eliminated candidates continued to split very evenly between Barr and Ruwart, regardless of what those candidates were asking them to do. The 5th ballot was down to the big three, and Ruwart narrowly edged Barr for first, after being just behind or tied on the four previous votes.

Root, being eliminated, then announced his support for Barr -- and his desire to be Barr's VP. Root's supporters didn't all go along with it: they broke about 2-to-1 for Barr, enough for him to win 54% to 46%. Ruwart, in a concession speech that was either ungracious or principled depending on your perspective, did not mention Barr's name or implore the party to rally around the winner. Root then won the VP vote, with Barr's support -- but not by much, over the purists' choice, Kubby.

So now the LP has a potentially powerhouse ticket, with two media-ready former Republicans who might have significant appeal to a large number of disenchanted Republicans. This could be the best thing to ever happen to the party -- or, it could be the worst, with the party's principles now sacrificed. All depends upon your perspective.

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