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Briefing: The rise of the Libertarians
Long considered a fringe party, Libertarians this year could actually play a pivotal role in the presidential election. What’s on their agenda?
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hat do Libertarians believe?
As befitting a party with the word “liberty” embedded in its name, Libertarians prize individual freedom above all, and believe that government should play the smallest possible role in the economy and in people’s lives. “Think of us,” the Libertarian Party declares on its official website, “as a group of people with a ‘live and let live’ mentality and a balanced checkbook.” Though their symbol is the Statue of Liberty, Libertarians also identify with the porcupine, whose prickliness underscores one of their favorite mottoes, “The right to be left alone.”

Where do they stand on the issues?
They’re all over the map and therefore don’t fit neatly into the conventional Right-Left divide. For instance, they are decidedly on the left in their support of free speech, open borders, legalized drugs, abortion rights, and all forms of adult consensual sex, including prostitution. They also oppose nearly all military interventions. But many other libertarian positions skew far to the right, including opposition to income taxes, gun-control laws, public schools, environmental regulation, and U.S. membership in the United Nations. “We can show up in any group,” said Nick Gillespie, editor in chief of the libertarian magazine Reason. “We’re both terrifying and devilishly attractive.”

What’s their history?
Libertarians like to say that their party is rooted in the American Revolution, when Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson envisioned a nation largely free from central authority. But there was no Libertarian Party until 1971, when a group of disgruntled activists came together in Colorado Springs to voice their dismay over federal price controls, the end of the gold standard, and the Vietnam War. Feeling that neither major party espoused the laissez-faire approach to government that they were looking for, they formed their own, and over the years have attracted such adherents as former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, humorist P.J. O’Rourke, Whole Foods founder John Mackey, comedians Drew Carey and Bill Maher, and radio-show host Howard Stern. “Other parties come and go,” says David Nolan, an advertising consultant who brought the original core group together. “The reason we have staying power is that we are consistent.”

Do they get many votes?
Yes. In 2006, Libertarian candidates received a total of more than 13 million votes nationwide. About 600 Libertarians now serve as mayors, county executives, and municipal council members, and occupy other local positions throughout the nation. While issues vary according to jurisdiction, most Libertarians come into office vowing to eliminate bureaucratic bloat and waste. “Government is not the answer to everything,” says Libertarian Ed Thompson, a former prison guard and professional card player who now serves as mayor of Tomah, Wis. “We need to put checks and balances on government at this level.”

How much national clout do Libertarians have?
Historically, very little, though that could change this year. With about 200,000 members, Libertarians actually constitute the country’s third largest political party, though their numbers pale in comparison to those of Democrats (about 72 million) and Republicans (55 million). When it comes time to vote for president, most people simply feel that a vote for any third-party candidate is a wasted vote. Indeed, the Libertarian candidate has never captured more than 1 percent of the vote in any presidential election. Still, recent polls suggest that up to 20 percent of Americans consider themselves “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” which makes them potentially open to the Libertarian message. With former Rep. Bob Barr as their standard-bearer this year (see below), Libertarians are predicting their strongest showing yet. Indeed, some analysts say Barr could tip the election to Democrat Barack Obama.

Is Barr that popular?
Not especially. But in addition to drawing the votes of self-described libertarians, Barr may be well positioned to attract the millions of Republicans who supported the libertarian-minded Ron Paul during the primaries. Many of those voters were drawn by Paul’s opposition to the war in Iraq and his message of smaller, hands-off government—positions that Barr embraces. With Republican John McCain so closely associated with the war in Iraq, Barr could draw enough GOP protest votes to affect the outcomes in such battleground states as Ohio and New Hampshire, as well as in Barr’s home state of Georgia. A recent Los Angeles Times–Bloomberg poll found that if the presidential election were held today, Barr would get 3 percent of the vote, mostly from people who would otherwise vote Republican.

How worried are Republicans?
Plenty. Some Republican Party officials have personally pleaded with Barr not to run for president, fearing that he could further split their already fractured base. Conservative columnist George Will recently predicted that Barr could be to John McCain “what Ralph Nader was to Al Gore—ruinous.” Independent pollster John Zogby believes that the momentum behind Barr is real. “Do I think he’ll get 3 percent? Probably not,” Zogby says. “But he doesn’t have to. I think we’re looking at a razor-thin election. If we just look at the states in play, he can, with just 10,000 votes here and there, make a difference.”

The Libertarian standard-bearer
Bob Barr, a 59-year-old former Republican congressman from Georgia, carries some personal and political baggage into his presidential candidacy. In 1994, as a congressional candidate, the thrice-married Barr reportedly licked whipped cream off the breasts of two women at a charity function. He once accidentally fired a .38-caliber pistol through a glass door at a fund-raiser. In Congress, he hardly amassed a libertarian record, leading the fight to impeach Bill Clinton, writing the Defense of Marriage Act, pushing for the Patriot Act, and opposing a woman’s right to choose. But since leaving Congress in 2003, he’s reconsidered many of his positions. Barr says he now regrets his vote for the Patriot Act because of its potential for abuse of power. Once a self-declared “four-star general in the war on drugs,” he now says that war is a failure. Though still personally opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage, he says those matters should be left to the states. One thing that hasn’t changed about Barr is his tartness. Asked recently about his objections to McCain’s candidacy, he responded, “How long do we have?”

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