Bob Barr, former GOP congressman from Georgia, is an all-but-announced presidential candidate - as a Libertarian.
The possibility of a run by Barr has sent shudders through the mainstream of the Republican party.
Barr, who will probably not declare his intentions for several days, has already been labeled a "spoiler."
In an interview with the Inquirer, Barr dismissed those accusations as whining.
"The notion that Republicans see a third-party candidate as spoiling their chances simply illustrates the arrogance of the two-party system," Barr said. [The full text of the interview is below.]
Republicans may have good cause to worry.
A run by Barr could be to John McCain "what Ralph Nader was to Al Gore - ruinous," wrote George Will in Newsweek. Some party experts believe Barr could siphon off essential conservative votes from Sen. John McCain, about whom many rightward voters have been less than enthusiastic.
Right-talking radio hosts - Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, and Ann Coulter - have expressed reservations about McCain or have been downright dismissive.
The American Spectator editorialized last month that "conservatives see the choice of McCain or the Democrats as analogous to picking between being punched in the stomach or kneed in the groin."
Enter Bob Barr, who rose to prominence during the 1990s as a Republican party pit bull.
He led the charge to impeach Bill Clinton, wrote the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (which said states did not have to recognize gay marriages performed in other states), and was a self-appointed four-star general in the "war on drugs." All impeccable conservative credentials.
But after losing his House seat in 2002, Barr underwent a conversion of sorts.
Barr shocked many Republicans when he became a paid consultant for the American Civil Liberties Union specializing in privacy issues.
He has renounced the war on drugs.
He's become a thorn in the side of Bush administration, criticizing what he perceives to be abuses of power and the Patriot Act.
Hipsters will know Barr best from his appearance in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, in which he eats a piece of cheese "from Kazakhstan" offered by Borat.
In 2006, he joined the Libertarian Party. He spoke with The Inquirer this week about why he's running.
Inquirer: If you decide to run for president, why?
Barr: To win.
Inquirer: What do you hope to accomplish?
Barr: I want to move the agenda of smaller government and increased individual liberty forward; help the Libertarian party to become a major, consistent player on the national political scene; raise the level of debate; bring the issues of smaller government back to the table, and cut government spending - that's at the root of all the issues facing the American people. I want to end the artificial control of the economy and end burdensome taxation; take a hard look at cutting cabinet positions; reduce the cost of the occupation of Iraq by beginning the process of removing the security blanket from the Iraqi regime . . . return respect for habeas corpus; reinstate the rule of law; stop the warrantless surveillance of American citizens; and remedy the abuses of the Patriot Act. . . .
Inquirer: As a Republican congressman, you were among the most visible and vocally conservative. What caused you to suddenly switch parties two years ago? Did you have a Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus experience that led to your conversion?
Barr: What laid the groundwork for my epiphany was the result of six years of the Bush administration.
They claimed to be Republicans and for a smaller government. Instead, with a complicit Republican Congress, they moved to dramatically expand the size, power and scope of the federal government. I concluded that the party I had been associated with for decades was no longer that party I had joined and no longer had an interest in smaller government. They no longer had an interest in increasing individual liberty and showed no signs of changing in my lifetime. I looked for a political venue for what was important for me. The only party out there that advocates and practices moving to smaller government and increased civil liberties was the Libertarian Party. . . .
Inquirer: Do you believe there may be other Republicans attracted by the Libertarian Party?
Barr: I'm sure there are. There are some libertarian-leaning Republicans in the House; Ron Paul [R., Texas] of course . . . . Then there's Chuck Hagel [R., Neb.] on the Senate side, Larry Craig [R., Idaho], John Sununu [R., N.H.], I think there are a number that share a large part of the libertarian philosophy. Whether they've ever considered joining, I don't know. But there are a number in both houses that from my experience care very deeply about the libertarian philosophy and principals.
Inquirer: You've made some radical turnabouts from many of your previous positions. Once a foe of any drug use, you recently said the Federal government should butt out. Haven't you also changed your stance on same-sex marriage? . . .
Barr: Since 9/11, there has been unprecedented growth in government power and the ascendancy of this notion that, because they are fighting terrorism, the government can do whatever it wants regardless of law. That has forced me to go back and take a look at areas that in prior times I could afford to support because we had a certain amount of freedom in other areas. It's no longer the case. We have to be much more zealous in protecting ourselves against government power. Once it may have made sense, been even acceptable to allow the government more leeway. With same-sex marriage, it's a decision states ought to make. That has always been my position. Over the past few years I have testified at the Federal level and state government level against the federal marriage amendment.
Inquirer: What about marijuana laws?
Barr: I believe it's important to turn that decision back to the states. If California voters decide in a referendum to recommend the use of medical marijuana, it should be respected by the federal government.
Barr: I'm pro-life. I have always been pro-life. I say get the federal government out of it. Leave it up to the states to decide.
Inquirer: Monetary issues?
Barr: I'm focused on what I'm focused on. I would dramatically reduce the size and cost of government, and that will strengthen the value of our currency at home and abroad.
Inquirer: What is wrong with the two-party system?
Barr: The two-party system has become stale and a state-controlled monopoly. I think it has removed an important element of choice for the American voter and led to a dumbing down of political discourse in America. I would like to see the people be able to go into a voting booth and not have to pull the lever for the lesser of two evils.
Inquirer: How do you feel about John McCain, the presumptive Republican candidate?
Barr: He's a candidate. But I don't think he espouses anything resembling the philosophy of smaller government that I support. Anyone whose signature piece of legislation is destructive of the First Amendment can hardly call themselves a conservative. His view of civil liberties is very much in the Bush administration mold. I have major disagreements with him. His position of a lengthy occupation of Iraq is well known. I would disagree with him there also.
Inquirer: A Zogby poll this week has you outpolling Ralph Nader. What do you think that signifies?
Barr: I think it indicates that there there is legitimate support for a third party candidate.
Inquirer: What base would a Barr candidacy draw from? Could you match or exceed the support received by Ross Perot during his bid for the White House?
Barr: I think there is a very significant base of support out there. If I choose to be the candidate and the Libertarian nominee I would surpass by far any prior Libertarian nominee and stand a very good chance of outpolling Perot's '92 numbers.
The votes would come from a variety of sources: libertarian-leaning Republicans not inclined to vote for McCain and other big-government Republicans. Others would include civil-libertarian Democrats. But most importantly, the votes would come from the significant number of young people who have become very involved in this election cycle. Many of them are not wedded to the two-party system to the same extent their parents and grandparents have been.
Inquirer: Did you consider yourself a Reagan Republican?
Barr: I was a very strong supporter of Ronald Reagan.
Inquirer: You've had years of experience in the federal government. You worked for the CIA, served as a congressman and as U.S. Attorney. What's the most important lesson you learned during your tenure?
Barr: That the government has a great deal of power. It doesn't need more power. It has too much power, and that power is frequently abused. The use of government power to effect social change is beyond the intent of the Constitution, the role of Congress and beyond the framework of our constitutional representative democracy.
Inquirer: Pundits have called a Barr candidacy a possible spoiler for Republicans.
Barr: I'm no more a spoiler for John McCain than John McCain could be a spoiler for me. The notion that Republicans see a third-party candidate as spoiling their chances simply illustrates the arrogance of the two-party system. Republicans and Democrats have come to view themselves as the only ones with a God-given right to choose a president. I want to offer voters something they will not get from the two major parties. If my platform polls well, it will be because the voters contrast it with McCain and whatever Democrat senator wins the nomination. If my platform polls well, its because the agenda I espouse is preferable. By offering a choice, it's something the other candidates should embrace rather than whine about.