For those inclined to participate in the electoral circus—and given the choices presented by the two major parties, especially on the key issue of war and an increasingly imperial American foreign policy, one can understand an inclination simply to abstain—the question is what kind of vote will best send a message to the system about the importance of your core political values.

I would respectfully suggest that a vote for Libertarian Party presidential candidate Michael Badnarik, and for Libertarians running for other offices, is the most efficacious way to do so.

It’s not a perfect way to telegraph a message, and Michael Badnarik is not a perfect candidate. But by its nature the electoral system does not offer ideal choices, simply those that have managed to claw their way to party nominations and ballot status. For conservatives who treasure the Old Republic and recoil from the interventionist foreign policies that have led to so much American blood being needlessly spilled and treasure unnecessarily wasted, while posing an ongoing danger to constitutional principles, the Libertarian Party is the best option in 2004.

John Kerry, however tempting it might be to contemplate a divided government (assuming Republicans maintain control of Congress) mired in glorious gridlock, simply will not do. His short-term solution to Iraq is more troops, and while he questions in retrospect the Bush administration’s decision-making and lack of planning, he is an unalloyed international interventionist unwilling to question the Wilsonian underpinnings of current American foreign policy. His explanation of his vote to authorize the use of force if needed is more ominous than if he had supported the Iraq War enthusiastically. The president should have that power, he explained, whining only that Bush had misused it.

On domestic policy, of course, his voting record is to the left of Teddy Kennedy, suggesting a slew of spending initiatives, not all of which a Republican Congress—especially one conditioned to higher spending by four years of Bush 43—will resist or block.

George W. Bush richly deserves to be punished at the polls. He got the United States into a war of aggression in Iraq that is likely to be followed, in a best-case scenario, by a long and difficult occupation that will inspire increasing hatred of the United States among people likely to express their hatred in unpleasant ways toward innocent Americans.

On the home front, Bush has presided over the most dramatic increase in domestic discretionary spending since the Great Society. While he talks of freedom and a government that leaves the people alone, the initial debates show that both his and Cheney’s learned response to problems in American society is to throw taxpayers’ money at them. This record does not deserve support or encouragement from even a modestly principled American conservative.

As for Ralph Nader, while some of his statements on the unwise war in Iraq have been welcome, he is what he has been for many years: an advocate of a comprehensive regulatory state designed to eliminate even the whiff of risk—and plenty of freedom—from American life. A vote for him in some battleground states might hurt Bush or help Kerry. Those who want to use their vote for such tactical purposes—understanding that no matter how sophisticated polling gets you can’t be sure it will have that effect—might want to vote for Nader, but it will not be a vote that sends a message of support for constitutionally limited government.

Why should a conservative vote for the Libertarian candidate rather than one of the American Independent, Patriot, or Constitution Party hopefuls? The main reason is the ability to send a coherent message of resistance to unconstitutional growth of government.To be sure, many conservatives are put off by some libertarian positions on drug-law reform, free trade, gay marriage, and pornography. But an election is—or should be for a government properly limited in scope—more about political values than moral values. If I correctly understand American Conservative readers, of which I have been one since early on, they still hold a constitutionally limited state, a noninterventionist foreign policy, and a proper balance among branches and levels of government, to be core political values.

The Libertarian Party, whatever its many shortcomings, has been around since 1972, running candidates at every level. It is on the ballot in every state and in 2000 ran enough congressional candidates to win (theoretically) a majority in the House. It is much better organized at a national level than any of the minor conservative parties (which may not be saying much) and it has presented a coherent philosophical alternative to the major parties for decades.

I know the party better in the Golden State than on a national level. In California, which has seen its share of flakes running as Libertarians, Orange County Superior Court Judge Jim Gray, a serious, principled proponent of limited government who would wipe the floor with Democrat Barbara Boxer and Republican Bill Jones if they were foolish enough to let him into televised debates, is running for Senate and should do respectably. He’s the harbinger of a trend toward people who understand that if you’re going to do politics, even as a third party, you put on a suit and tie, handle questions seriously, and convince people you could actually serve responsibly if elected.

That trend in the Libertarian Party should be rewarded. And a vote for a Libertarian is the best way for a small-government, constitutionalist conservative to let various establishments know there is still a constituency for the Constitution.

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Alan W. Bock is a senior editorial writer for the Orange County Register.