Setting the Barr: Presidential bid by ex-rep. may hurt McCain

Bob Barr has some of his former conservative allies worried. The former Republican congressman from Georgia and erstwhile nemesis of former President Bill Clinton is thinking about running for president.

Though Barr has launched an exploratory committee to consider a White House bid as a Libertarian, many remember Barr as a vocal House Republican in the late 1990s, according to his former colleague Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.).

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“I’m concerned that [Barr’s candidacy] will detract from the Republican candidate and simply enhance the Democratic candidate,” said Deal.

Columnist George Will went one step further. “Come November, Barr conceivably could be to John McCain what Ralph Nader was to Al Gore in 2000 — ruinous,” Will wrote in his Newsweek column this week.

It’s Barr’s record that causes conservatives concern. During his eight years in Congress, Barr sponsored the Defense of Marriage Act, which allowed state same-sex marriage bans and is now law. He led an unsuccessful effort to repeal the assault weapons ban. And Barr famously introduced articles of impeachment against Clinton and served as a House manager in Clinton’s 1998 Senate trial.

Barr could get “a lot of voters who are disenchanted with government in general,” Deal said. “Potentially, he could pick up Ron Paul supporters.”

Like the Texas GOP congressman, Barr has criticized Republicans on several issues. Since leaving Congress in 2002, Barr has bucked the party line in opposing the warrantless wiretapping program and calling for a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. He said he now regrets his vote for the Patriot Act, which he voted for despite reservations about government overreach in 2001.

“The Republican Party has left me and many other conservatives and libertarian-leaning Republicans in the dust,” Barr told The Hill. He said his dissatisfaction stems from “the modern Republican Party’s” embrace of big government spending and “diluting, if not directly undercutting, the civil liberties of American citizens.”

Barr said he loses no sleep over the chance that he’ll be a spoiler in November.

“If I decide to become a candidate, it will be to offer the American people a true choice,” he said. He added he would run on an agenda of small government and respecting the Bill of Rights and “individual liberty.”

Instead of siphoning votes from Sen. McCain (R-Ariz.), Barr said that his support would come from “disaffected Republican voters, Ron Paul supporters and independent voters and Democratic voters who believe in a strong message of civil liberties.” To him, both the Republican McCain and Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) fail to offer “a real choice” in November, especially on his No. 1 issue, reducing the size of government.

McCain heralded “the fact that he doesn’t like earmarks, but ... if you do away with earmarks, you still spend the money, [but] in a more open way,” Barr said. He added: “Sens. Clinton and Obama have very clear and consistent records of supporting increased government spending.”

Of course, there’s the chance that Barr’s campaign won’t make much of an impact.

“I can’t imagine Bob Barr or any other Libertarian candidate making any difference in this election,” said Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report. “This is likely to be a massive-turnout election, which will wash out the impact of fringe candidates on either end of the spectrum.”

That’s what happened in 2004, when both Nader, running as an Independent, and Michael Badnarik, the Libertarian nominee, received less than one-half of 1 percent of the popular vote.
Badnarik said part of his campaign’s problem was its lack of funding, something Barr will need to address.

“I traveled 25,000 miles in five months; most people would do that in two years,” Badnarik said. “Several times I looked in my wallet and saw no money. We couldn’t afford to go home.”

One option for Barr would be an online network, like the one that helped Paul raise more than $34 million for his libertarian-minded presidential campaign, Badnarik said.

Another major problem that plagues third-party bids is the idea that Libertarians can’t win, Badnarik said.

“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Badnarik, who received less than 400,000 votes, or a third of 1 percent of the popular vote. If they don’t think they can win, “Libertarians aren’t willing to put in the effort to make that happen,” he said.

But unlike Nader four years ago, Barr would be running on a party ticket that expects to be on the ballot in all states except Oklahoma. And unlike Badnarik, an engineer by training, Barr has been a successful politician, something Badnarik himself noted after Barr spoke at a Libertarian conference last week.

“He is a very smooth and articulate speaker,” the former presidential nominee said. “His experience in Congress shows.”

Barr, however, has a measured view of his White House chances. He said that his campaign would have several goals, including raising a debate about the government’s size and structure, reducing the size of government and letting Americans know that “they do have a choice.”

“If, in fact, we were to accomplish all that through an electoral victory, so much the better,” he said. “That is possible. I do not view it as a likely result, but it certainly is possible.”