On Monday, former Congressman Bob Barr officially announced his candidacy for president as a member of the Libertarian party. Barr spoke with National Review Online’s Stephen Spruiell on the telephone Monday evening about his decision to enter the race.
NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE: Shortly after the 2006 elections you told Reason magazine you were not going to run for president as a Libertarian in 2008. What changed?
BOB BARR: I think what changed is the continued deterioration of civil liberties and of conservative government by the Bush administration, and my continued activity in the Libertarian party, which has convinced me that the Libertarian party was really serious about becoming a real player on the national scene and was really serious about putting forward a candidate that could attract a significant number of voters this year. When I looked at the field of [Libertarian-party] candidates, I did not see one that impressed me as the sort that could really appeal to and have the credibility to be a candidate at the national level and help put the Libertarian party on the map, so to speak.
NRO: Just to follow up on that very quickly, a lot of the things about the Bush administration that you criticize were known to the public prior to late 2006. Is there anything specific that happened in the intervening period that particularly made you feel like, “I need to run for president?”
BARR: I think the continued deterioration of the rule of law and separation of powers by the current administration really has driven home the point to me that we need to do something dramatic to reverse that trend, and simply working on the outside — not as a candidate — would not accomplish what really needs to be done to highlight these deteriorations in civil liberties, the rule of law, and the separation of powers by this administration. Whether it’s another memo that comes out in support of torture, or another memo that comes out in support of ignoring the Fourth Amendment, it just seems to be piling on worse and worse, the more we know.
NRO: On balance, which of your prospective opponents poses a greater threat to liberty in this country, Barack Obama or John McCain?
BARR: Both of the candidates are very much in the mold of big government, status quo establishment, and a vote for either one of them is not really a vote to change dramatically the course of what we’re witnessing here with the current trend toward bigger and bigger government and more and more power vested in the executive branch. I think it’s necessary to really make a dramatic break with that trend.
If you have a president who supports McCain-Feingold, for example, as Sen. McCain obviously does, then that’s going to be a philosophy that’s going to color his administration. A president, whose signature piece of legislation as a senator, for example, was McCain-Feingold, certainly cannot be expected to name or support jurists who truly believe in shrinking and not expanding the power of the executive.
NRO: So you believe that under either president, the American people’s liberties, broadly understood, would deteriorate at the same rate?
BARR: I don’t know if they would deteriorate at the same rate, but neither of the candidates that are currently in line for their parties’ nominations would move in the direction of increasing individual liberty and shrinking government power, which is certainly what I would seek to do as president, and something that I know is important to the American people.
NRO: Do you believe that the American people would lose more of their freedoms under one of them, or aren’t they distinct in your view?
BARR: They’re distinct in my view. They certainly do support somewhat different programs. For example, Sen. McCain has indicated that it would be his predisposition to remain in Iraq as an occupying force for the foreseeable future. Sen. Obama has indicated that would not be his predisposition. I think in terms of expanding the growth of entitlement programs, Sen. Obama would be more predisposed in that direction than Sen. McCain.
Sen. McCain probably would be marginally better on tax cuts, as he does indicate that he now supports the Bush tax cuts that he did not earlier. Sen. McCain has indicated that he does not favor earmarks, but he really has not taken any significant stance opposed to government spending generally and has not indicated that he would move in the direction of significantly moving to decrease the size of the federal government in terms of the amount of money that it takes from the American people and the amount of money that it spends.
NRO: Newt Gingrich told The Washington Times yesterday that “Bob Barr will make it marginally easier for Barack Obama to become president. That outcome threatens every libertarian value Barr professes to champion.” Do you accept that argument?
BARR: No. I have great respect for Newt. He’s a friend, and I’ve known him for many years and worked with him in the Congress. But I’d be running not as a Republican. Newt’s views are very much colored as an advocate only of the Republican party. My views go beyond, and my principles go beyond, simple adherence to a particular party. The reason that I have entered the race, the reason that I seek to be the Libertarian-party nominee, is to put forward an agenda for the American people of libertarian philosophy and libertarian principles that would seek to maximize individual liberty and minimize government power. That would be the purpose of my running.
Now if in fact, at the end of the day, I am unsuccessful in securing the presidency on that platform, but I have moved that agenda forward, have raised the level of debate and have caused the American people to recognize that there really is a choice there and cause a large number of them to vote for me as the Libertarian nominee, I think that’s very important.
NRO: But you don’t believe that Americans would experience significantly less liberty if a President Obama was to, say, raise taxes, spend more, and enact a series of regulations that curtail Americans’ liberties?
BARR: I think anybody that does that would be by definition curtailing Americans’ liberties, but why wouldn’t the American people legitimately blame Sen. McCain for that? Because Sen. McCain, for example, if he loses to Sen. Obama, did not put forward an agenda that appealed to a sufficient number of Americans, did not convince them of his bona fides in terms of being a so-called conservative candidate. Why blame Bob Barr? Why not blame Sen. McCain for not putting together and moving forward with an adequate platform?
NRO: What convinced you that it would be impossible to reform the Republican party from within?
BARR: The fact that the Republican party has evidenced absolutely no interest whatsoever in moving back toward concepts such as the rule of law and away from concepts such as the so-called unitary executive, which flies in the face of both common sense and constitutional history in terms of separation of powers — a Republican party that for several years while the party controlled both houses of Congress and the White House did not move in the direction of shrinking the size, the scope, or the cost of government and has moved significantly and consistently to increase federal spending.
NRO: Okay, so let’s say you’re a voter who votes purely on the issue of fiscal discipline. Why would this voter choose you over John McCain, who has run on a platform of massively cutting government spending and vetoing any bill that has an earmark?
BARR: Earmarks are not the most serious problem in terms of the cost and the size of the federal government. They represent a very small percentage of government spending. One could do away with every earmark and yet barely make a perceptible ripple in the cost of government. John McCain, if you go to his website, for example, you see nothing specific in terms of significant cuts in government spending. You know, it’s pretty easy to rail against pork and earmarks, and that’s fine, that’s great. But it does not represent the muscle of eating away at federal spending. It’s going to take a lot more than that, and Sen. McCain does not have the record that would indicate to me that he would significantly cut the size and the cost of the federal government.
NRO: Okay, and then on the flip side, let’s say you’re a voter who votes purely on the issue of the Iraq war. Why would this voter choose you over Barack Obama?
BARR: Because what we need is somebody who understands, as I do — I’ve worked in the intelligence business for a number of years, served in the Congress, lived and worked overseas — who understands the fact that you cannot — and it represents very poorly conceived public policy to believe — that through the force of the U.S. military and at significant cost to U.S. taxpayers, that it’s either appropriate or feasible to build a nation in the image of a democratic society where there is absolutely no history or understanding of participatory government in the first place. It also represents the administration’s policy, for example, a failed policy of believing that if you provide a security blanket for a foreign regime, that they are going to move in the direction of taking a hold of and being responsible for their own economy, their own political system, and their own security.
The difference, I suppose, more than anything else, between my view of how to extricate the United States from Iraq specifically and these sorts of adventures in the first place is that I don’t think Sen. Obama has really a credible consistency in the fundamental notion that we should not occupy and build foreign nations. When one looks, for example, at the full scope of his statements and positions on these issues, one is struck not so much by the fact that he would not engage and not use U.S. military and economic might to build nations, but he simply disagrees with doing it in Iraq. I think we ought to have a consistent policy of a more defense-oriented national-defense policy and one that does not engage in nation-building whether it’s in the Middle East, in Africa, or in the Balkans.
NRO: What role do you see Ron Paul playing as November approaches? Do you expect him to have any further impact on the race?
BARR: I think Ron Paul will remain an active voice in the Republican party. That is certainly what he has indicated to me, that he intends to remain active as a Republican member of Congress and as somebody with a proven track record in terms of helping to set national policy. So I hope that he remains active. Whether he will become involved in the Libertarian party at all, I certainly don’t know. I expect to continue to stay in touch with him as I have done over the past several months and during my tenure in the Congress.
NRO: Did his success in fundraising and so forth at all inspire you to join the race as a Libertarian candidate.
BARR: It did. I think very clearly what Ron Paul has tapped into in terms of reaching an awful lot of young people in particular and illustrating very clearly that in this day and age it is possible to reach a lot of young people through the Internet really provides a model that can be very productive in other races including ours.
NRO: He was very successful in fundraising but wasn’t able to get a lot of voters out. How do you plan to counter that?
BARR: I think one way that we can improve on what Ron was able to do is that we are doing this through a much more clearly identified, separate base, and that is through the Libertarian party, with a clear and distinct identity and not so much as part of the status quo, the establishment mechanism. I think that will help. I think also I have ability — I’d like to think a fairly credible ability — to reach people, to articulate issues, to debate issues, that will reach an awful lot of people also.