Bob Barr and the Libertarians: A Former Republican Congressman Joins a Third Party

Article excerpt

MOVIEGOERS WHO WALKED into last year's surprise blockbuster Borat were treated to images of naked male wrestling, the attempted kidnapping of Pamela Anderson, and something truly surprising: an interview with former Republican congressman Bob Barr of Georgia. The joke in the 30-second clip was supposed to come when the faux Kazakh journalist offered Barr a slice of cheese with a disgusting origin. But the real punch line came at the start of the segment, when Borat introduced Barr as a "party official from the ruling regime."

Even before the GOP lost control of Congress in November, no one confused Bob Barr with a loyal supporter of the "regime." After the eight-year Republican congressman was ousted from his seat in 2002, Barr refused to fade away: He became one of the most vocal political opponents of the PATRIOT Act, secret surveillance programs, and many other post-9/II extensions of executive power.

On December 18, the distance between Barr and the regime grew larger. The Libertarian Party announced that he had taken a lifetime membership and accepted a leadership role in the party, representing its membership in the southeastern United States.

"I chose to join the Libertarian Party because at this time in our nation's history, it's fundamentally essential to join a party, work with a party, that's 100 percent committed to protecting liberty," Barr told me the day his move was announced.

"As great as the Republican Party is--and I have been fortunate to work with that party for many years and still have the highest regard for it--the Constitution is under such assault in this day and age. In order to have any chance of saving the Constitution and our civil liberties, we need a party dedicated to that cause."

Barr has stunned conservatives before--for example, when he cushioned his fall from Congress by taking an advisory role in the American Civil Liberties Union. But joining the Libertarians was simply too much. "Don't let the door hit you [on the way out]" wrote David Hogberg at the website of The American Spectator, a conservative magazine where Barr is a contributing editor.

Bruce Bartlett, the supply-side economist who famously dubbed George W. Bush a conservative "impostor," pointed Barr to the woodshed. "People are free to do what they want to do, Bartlett wrote in his syndicated column, "and if they want to join the Libertarians, that's their business. But if their goal is to actually change policy in a libertarian direction, then they are making a big mistake."

Barr obviously disagreed. His agitation outside Congress wasn't having much of an impact on the GOP. But neither were the efforts of elected Republicans who agreed with Barr. The closest any Republican came to winning a civil liberties victory was when Pennsylvania Sen. Aden Specter held hearings about the Bush administration's warrantless wiretap program. And Specter's revolt collapsed: His proposed reforms basically would have legalized anything the executive had done. If there was any recent moment when the GOP provided hope to libertarians, it escaped Barr.

"Where you have government that doesn't obey laws of this nation, we have a problem," the former congressman told me. "When you have an administration that decides it doesn't have to review the decisions of our courts, we have a problem. When you have a Congress exerting no leadership in terms of oversight, we have a problem. The party in power was not providing a solution to those problems. I've concluded that the Libertarian Party is the best mechanism for solving them."

But is Bob Barr the best mechanism for building the Libertarian Party? Before 9/II changed the issue map so drastically, many libertarians knew Barr primarily for his strong support of the war on drugs. The 1998 Barr Amendment blocked implementation of a D.C. medical marijuana initiative that 69 percent of voters supported (according to exit polls) by prohibiting the D. …