Next year’s Republican primary in Georgia’s eleventh congressional district is likely to be a crowded slugfest. The incumbent, GOP representative Phil Gingrey, is running for the state’s open Senate seat; the Republicans aiming to win his House seat in 2014 include Susan Davis, Allen Levene, state representative Ed Lindsey Jr., state senator Barry Loudermilk, Larry Mrozinski, and Tricia Pridemore.
And then there’s former representative Bob Barr, whom you may remember from the Republican Revolution of 1994 . . . or as one of the House managers of the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 . . . or as the Libertarian party’s presidential candidate in 2008.
The good news is that whatever you think about the major issues of the day, at some point in the past two decades, Bob Barr agreed with you. The bad news is he may set a record for the most pieces of legislation a congressman voted for and then later renounced.
A former U.S. Attorney, Barr in his early career was a staunch supporter of the War on Drugs. In 1998 Congressman Barr passed an amendment to the D.C. appropriations bill that prohibited the District from conducting a ballot initiative on the legalization of marijuana or reducing the penalties for its use.
Then in 2002, Barr lost his seat in a hard-fought Republican primary after Democrat-managed redistricting. By 2007 he had changed his thinking on drugs so dramatically that he became a lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project, and one of his efforts was to repeal the amendment that was named after him.
Then there’s marriage. In May 1996 Barr introduced the Defense of Marriage Act, barring federal recognition of same-sex marriage. Bill Clinton signed it into law later that year. Twelve years later, addressing the Libertarian national convention, Barr said: “The Defense of Marriage Act — in so far as it provided the federal government a club to club down the rights of law-abiding American citizens — has been abused, misused and should be repealed, and I will work to repeal that.”
Then earlier this year, when the Supreme Court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, Barr wrote on his Facebook page:
I personally believe marriage should be defined as between one man and one woman and, if it were on the ballot in Georgia, I’d vote that way. However, I have come to believe that it’s yet one more example of the federal government’s delving into areas that throughout our history have been best left to the states. I trust the judgement [sic] of the people of Georgia more than that of Washington, D.C.
Barr could argue that he’s always believed that marriage should be defined as one man and one woman, but states should make that determination, not the federal government. Yet his emphasis conveniently shifts depending upon whether his audience consists of socially conservative Republicans or pro-gay-marriage Libertarians.
Barr voted for the Patriot Act in 2001 but has spent much of the past decade denouncing its provisions. By 2003, he was accusing Attorney General John Ashcroft of “traveling the heartland to sow fear and to endeavor to limit public discourse over the most basic of our freedoms.” At the Libertarian convention in 2008, he said of the Patriot Act that he wanted to “drive a stake through its heart, burn it, shoot it, [and] burn it again.”
As that year’s election approached, he suggested that some of President George W. Bush’s counter-terror surveillance measures might have warranted impeachment. And by 2011 he was accusing congressional Republicans of acquiescing in “unconstitutional provisions of the PATRIOT Act, that permit the government to violate a citizen’s privacy and gain access to possibly their most private of records.”
Barr voted for the Iraq War and later said he regretted his vote. He said he had been swayed by intelligence claims that proved false, and by 2008 he was boasting: “Only one party has consistently demanded a quick and full withdrawal from Iraq: the Libertarian Party.” That same year he called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from almost every country:
By maintaining a military presence in more than 130 nations around the world in more than 700 installations, with hundreds of thousands of troops deployed overseas, the U.S. spends more to protect the soil of other nations than our own.
In Congress, Barr generally drew a tough line on immigration. In 1998 he voted against an expansion of visas for skilled workers and sponsored a bill to make English the official language of the U.S. But in 2008 Barr declared, “I don’t favor a fence. If there is economic opportunity, people should be free to come into this country and participate in the market.” This summer he changed his mind again, denouncing the Senate’s version of immigration reform and labeling it “a pathway to amnesty for millions of illegal aliens.”
In the House, Barr consistently followed the pro-life line, voting to ban partial-birth abortion, the transport of a minor to get an abortion, and “family planning funding” in U.S. aid abroad. As the Libertarian nominee, he avoided the issue entirely and deflected questions about abortion. Now his campaign website declares: “Bob has the experience needed to stand up for family values and most importantly protecting the sanctity of human life.”
Barr’s biography on his campaign website does not mention his dalliance with the Libertarian party, nor his work for the ACLU or the Marijuana Policy Project. It does mention his time on the boards of the American Conservative Union and National Rifle Association — exactly the stances one would expect him to hide and emphasize in a deeply conservative district in the suburbs northwest of Atlanta.
If the candidate wants to be conservative, he should be conservative. If he wants to be libertarian, he should be libertarian. But he shouldn’t shift around based on the electoral prospects before him.