In the ’90s, Bob Barr was known as a socially conservative Republican congressman from Georgia. Since leaving Congress, he has made a mark as a defender of the Constitution, working to build a Left-Right coalition in defense of civil liberties trampled in the war on terror. He’s now pondering a run as the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate and recently sat down with TAC to discuss the ideas that would animate his campaign.
TAC: Tell us about yourself—where you come from, important political and intellectual developments, how you arrived at the place you are now.
Until I entered college, I grew up overseas, living in a number of places in which military dictatorships and tyrannical governments ran the country. Those societies didn’t have anything approaching the freedom that we do, and I think that really colored the rest of my life.
We lived in Iraq for several years when I was in grade school. Also in Peru, Panama, Colombia, West Pakistan, Canada, Malaysia, and Tehran, where I graduated from high school.
TAC: That trumps Barack Obama! How did you get into politics?
During the ’70s, when I was working for the CIA, the Hatch Act prevented me from becoming actively involved in politics. So as soon as I left the Agency, when I moved down to Georgia to practice law, I had a tremendous amount of pent-up interest. I immediately became involved in the Republican Party, initially in the George H.W. Bush campaign, when he was involved in the primary leading up to the ’80 race.
I worked my way up through the hierarchic precinct and district levels, was on the state committee down there, and became general counsel and then chairman for a local party. I was not involved from a partisan standpoint during the four years that I served as U.S. attorney, but then as soon as I left that job, I became active again in local politics and ran in 1992 for the U.S. Senate. There were five of us in the primary. I was in a runoff with the eventual winner, Paul Coverdell.
I went back to practicing law and in 1993 saw an opportunity. Bill Clinton was very unpopular in the 7th district, and the incumbent supported him at least on two key issues: the tax increase and the gun-control bill. He was seen jogging with him. We plastered that picture everywhere and beat him in the 1994 election.
TAC: Describe the ideological trajectory from conservative to libertarian and from activist to potential candidate.
It goes back to my upbringing and my view of the freedoms that we have. They can disappear, they can be taken away, and it is very difficult, if not impossible, to regain liberty lost.
The defining moment for me was 9/11 and the government’s reaction to it. That was a quantum step in the direction of single-branch government.
I voted for the Patriot Act—but I certainly would not do it again. It was probably the worst vote I cast in Congress. At the time, we had obtained assurances from the administration that they would limit the applicability of the Patriot Act provisions. They promised that they would engage in appropriate and full reporting and disclosure to the Congress, and we were able to secure sunset clauses for a number of provisions.
But it became clear very quickly that the administration did not intend to limit the use of the Patriot Act. So one of my primary activities over the last five years since leaving Congress has been trying to undo the damage wrought by the Patriot Act and preventing further abuses. We put together a group involving everybody from the American Conservative Union to the ACLU to Americans for Tax Reform and Eagle Forum—a number of different folks from across the ideological spectrum—to fight this unprecedented assault on the Bill of Rights by our own government.
Over the ensuing five years, it became clear to me the Republican Party was not going to change, and I decided that whatever years the Lord leaves me on this earth, I was not going to waste them remaining involved with a party that had no interest in individual liberty.
TAC: Do you also regret your vote authorizing the Iraq War?
That vote was based—I will put it as charitably as possible—on faulty information. The legislation was presented and construed by a lot of us as more limited than it turned out to be. If Congress had been presented with a resolution that said we want you to authorize the use of massive military force or an occupying force in Iraq that will last anywhere from five years to as long as one can speculate, I don’t think there would have been that many folks who would have voted for it.
It was presented as a situation where we had an immediate problem that needed to be taken care of. They said there was a plan in place that was consistent with the traditional role of the U.S. military—not nation-building, not as an occupying force.
TAC: What did you think was going to happen? What’s the alternative to occupying a country once you go in?
You should assure yourself before you go in that there is a certain minimal level of support for what you are doing. This apparently was not done. You need to go in with the force you need. That was not done.
TAC: What should the U.S. do about Iran?
I think a lot of people, perhaps even some of our policy makers, tend to lump all the countries in that part of the world together. And that is a serious and perhaps a fatal mistake. Iran is not Iraq. It is a very different country, from a religious, from a historical, and from a political standpoint. The people have had a much greater degree of political participation than in Iraq. That can be built on. It is a country that has a great deal of economic and philosophical compatibility with the United States. That can be built on. There are a very large number of Iranian-Americans in this country. There’s reason for that: the two countries do share much in common.
I think the United States needs to deal with the government in Iran as a professional government. Mr. Ahmadinejad sometimes makes statements that don’t make complete sense to us, but denigrating him and trying to marginalize him simply plays into his hands.
I think we ought to remove from the table some sort of significant military operation against Iran. That would be very irresponsible and not likely to offer any degree of success. We need to engage Iran and recognize that there is a significant pool of support among a lot of the people for a positive and friendly relationship with the United States. At the same time, we need to be wary of Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons, but I don’t think we ought to be sounding that alarm constantly. I’ve seen no intelligence that indicates that it’s imminent.
TAC: What is the defining issue in this campaign? Foreign policy? The economy?
The proper role of the government in the economy and the scope of government spending. I think Iraq certainly is an important issue, partly because of the tremendous cost of it—$400 million a day is a lot of money that could be better utilized by American citizens to do the things here at home.
TAC: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are spending a lot of time in Pennsylvania trying to find a convincing message to mostly working-class voters who find that in an increasingly global economy they can’t sustain the living standard that their parents had. How do you address this issue?
I think it is important to point out to the American people that while their living standards are decreasing, the living standard of the government is increasing, and it ought to be the other way around. As long as you allow a government to keep growing, whatever tax system you have is going to feed that beast, and I think people simply need to be reminded that as these things are happening to them, the same thing is not happening to the government because the government can just keep spending their money and to whatever degree it wants.
TAC: To what do you attribute the fall of the dollar?
The imbalance in trade, the lack of market forces being used to operate and create a better balance here in this country. I am not an economist and never hope to be one, but when you have government interfering in the market and setting artificial standards, it is going to cause disruptions.
TAC: What are the mechanics of securing a Libertarian Party nomination?
Two things are important here. One is ballot access. The Libertarian Party alone among third parties has national ballot access.
Internally, it is a matter of the delegates to the Denver convention over Memorial Day weekend deciding on who the nominees for president and vice president are going to be. If I decide to become a candidate, we will be in touch with those delegates to make sure that we do have the requisite number of votes, which I am very confident we would.
TAC: Would the Libertarian Party have trouble with your views on immigration?
Some members might have trouble with my views on some other issues—drugs, the marriage issue, even though on both of those issues, I hold a strong federalism position, which is to me very consistent with the Libertarian philosophy.
On the issue of immigration, my focus is consistent with the platform, and that is securing the border. I am not talking about physical securing. 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…
TAC: Does that mean you favor a guestworker program?
Yes. I think people ought to be able to come in and compete for jobs as long as they submit to an immigration procedure that ensures they do not pose a security or health risk. Internally, let the market dictate if there is a place for folks.
It is important to start removing the government-program incentives that bring people here. The market ought to be the incentive, not welfare programs.
TAC: Assuming that you do get into the race and things don’t turn out for the best, what would you say your campaign will achieve, even if it falls short of the presidency?
I would hope to clarify for the American people that they do not have to allow themselves to be held captive to the two-party system. I would also hope to strengthen the ability of the Libertarian Party to be a permanent, viable force in American politics.
TAC: What do you have going for you that recent third-party efforts like Buchanan’s or Nader’s didn’t?
One, I think, is the timing. The Bush administration has made very clear to the American people the political corruption of the process. That has soured people, perhaps as never before, with regard to the establishment.
I also think it helps that so many young people are becoming involved politically. We see this in Senator Obama’s campaign. We saw it when Ron Paul was an active Republican candidate. That is something that has not prevailed in earlier efforts.
I think in terms of my personal attributes that having served as an official with the CIA, as a federal prosecutor, and as a member of Congress brings a significant amount of credibility.
Also, neither of those candidates ran on the Libertarian Party ticket, and national ballot access offers a leg up in making a credible run for the presidency.
TAC: When are you going to make an announcement?
Very shortly—well in advance of the convention.
TAC: What kind of response have you gotten since announcing the formation of your exploratory committee?
I would like to tell you that everything we have heard is positive, and while most of it is, people are concerned that I’d be taking votes away from McCain. They say, “Even if McCain doesn’t do anything else, he will give us conservative judges.”
I think people really need to focus on what McCain stands for and what he would be looking for in a judge. The centerpiece of Senator McCain’s domestic policy can be wrapped up in two words, “McCain-Feingold.” I don’t think anybody should believe that a President McCain would nominate a judge who does not support that philosophy. That is not conservative, by any stretch of the imagination.
If we had simply gone along over the years only supporting those candidates that the Republican establishment wanted, we never would have had Ronald Reagan. So the bottom line, particularly for conservatives, is: when was standing up and doing the right thing for the right reason not an appropriate political step?