Some candidates make themselves ridiculous by running for president over and over: Stassen, Buchanan, Keyes. Others make themselves ridiculous by running at all. Enter former Republican congressman Bob Barr.
He has announced his candidacy for the nomination of the Libertarian party, which holds its convention this weekend. Barr served four terms in Congress in Georgia before getting trounced in a 2002 primary fight against Rep. John Linder sparked by redistricting. This is not a natural path to the presidency. The American Civil Liberties Union hired him as a consultant after 9/11 and he’s been expanding on a libertarian streak he had in Congress — and shedding his otherwise orthodox right-wing views — ever since.
The point of a candidacy like Barr’s is at least to highlight and defend a worldview. But Barr has never been a particularly effective spokesman for his views, even views that were long-held. The new Barr is a non-interventionist anti-government purist committed to a thoroughgoing civil libertarianism. In Congress, he voted for the Iraq war, an early version of the prescription-drug program, and the Patriot Act. As the Cato Institute’s Daniel Griswold has pointed out, he voted with protectionists to secure the interests of cotton farmers and the textile industry in his district.
The old Barr was a scourge of illegal drugs. He was a member of the Speaker’s Task Force for a Drug-Free America and authored the Barr amendment, which blocked implementation of a voter initiative to legalize medical marijuana in the District of Columbia. Last year, he signed on with the Marijuana Policy Project to work to repeal his own handiwork, explaining that the expansion of governmental powers after 9/11 had transformed his view on the war on drugs.
We don’t begrudge anyone the right to change their views, and applaud Barr’s change on medical marijuana. But on the war on terror, he’s simply wrong, opposing laws that have updated and rationalized the government’s powers to counter terrorism, and doing so while balancing respect for constitutional liberties with the need for public safety. Barr has resorted to the most demagogic arguments against the laws, including hysteria over the “library search” provision of the Patriot Act.
In a close presidential race, every vote is important. The press is speculating that Barr could be John McCain’s Nader. We doubt it. It will probably be Barr’s fate to be ignored, and those libertarians who care about the credibility of their cause should be glad of it.