Third party presidential candidates are often overlooked in the horserace discussions leading up to an election, but -- as George H.W. Bush and Al Gore learned the hard way -- they can have an impact. This year, even though he's not getting a lot of attention, the third-party candidate who has the best chance to upset the political applecart is Libertarian Bob Barr.
A former Republican Congressman from Georgia, Barr came to Washington in 1995 as part of the "Republican Revolution." He gained a reputation as one of the most conservative members of Congress, authoring the Defense of Marriage Act and serving as one of the major forces behind the Bill Clinton impeachment proceedings. Barr, however, began questioning the Bush administration over post-9/11 privacy and civil liberties issues. After leaving Congress in 2003, he became a more outspoken critic, formally leaving the Republican Party in 2006. He became the Libertarian candidate for president in May and has made the reduction of the federal government, the end of the Iraq War, and the expansion of personal liberties the centerpieces of his platform.
Polls currently have Barr at between 3 and 6 percent nationally, but Zogby has him performing stronger in some key states. He's polling 5 percent in Florida, 7 percent in Arizona, 8 percent in Colorado, 10 percent in Nevada and 11 percent in New Hampshire, numbers that should be giving both the McCain and Obama camps pause. Barr, however, says he's in it to win it.
Entrepreneurs tend to have a strong Libertarian streak. What would they like best about a Barr administration?
No longer would there be thousands of new regulations each year by faceless bureaucrats. The federal government would finally start to shrink instead of growing ever larger under Democrats and Republicans. We'd see a tremendous burst of enthusiasm and support represented in a dramatic increase in investment activity that would be reflected on Wall Street.
What would you do right away?
To set the example, immediately upon taking office, I would reduce the size, expenditure, and personnel of the Executive Office. We would start conducting cost/benefit analyses of federal programs and agencies, prioritizing those agencies performing legitimate functions and the much larger number that aren't. I would send a message to Congress that there will be no legislation raising the ceiling on the national debt. We'd begin dramatically cutting from that point to reduce the size, scope, and power of the federal government.
What effect do you think the "war on terror" has had on small business and scientific research and development?
A main one is the decrease in the number of foreign students able to enter the United States for educational purposes, which will have dramatic and long-term negative effects. We lose participation from those individuals as potential entrepreneurs in this country, and we lose this generation and future generations as pro-American entrepreneurs in other countries. In decades past, the magnet was the United States. The goal of students with an entrepreneurial bent was to come here to study and conduct research with American companies. Those students have been diverted to Europe.
Are there any business regulations you favor?
I think regulations should do two things: protect against piracy and fraud of one's intellectual or tangible assets, and those related to the broad general welfare. Other than those two things, businesses ought to be left to operate subject only to legal actions if they harm other individuals or businesses.
In a recent Newsweek cover story, Fareed Zakaria wrote, "Bush 43 has surely been the most fiscally irresponsible President in American history." Do you agree?
There have certainly been other presidents that were fiscally irresponsible. LBJ and FDR come to mind, and I'm not sure one can say in absolute terms that Bush has been worse than them, but his problem is more acute because he continues to tout himself as a conservative. Clearly, he is not.
You served in Congress and worked with President Clinton to balance the federal budget. How important is a balanced budget?
It's extremely important. Not as an end unto itself, but as a step toward permanent fiscal responsibility. You can't begin to tackle the national debt until you balance the budget. It also sends an important psychological message to investors and business owners.
Let's go through a few issues. From 2000 to 2006, the U.S. economy grew by 15 percent, but real median family income decreased. Any thoughts on how to ensure economic growth isn't just for the top percentage of Americans?
As the private sector is losing jobs, the government sector is gaining them. The fact of the matter is there is way too high of a percentage of economic activity directly related to government spending and regulation. That's what's holding the entire equation back.
How do you feel about the defense industry, which grows by leaps and bounds every year?
It's gotten much worse since we've been spending such huge sums of money in Iraq. There's even less oversight than normal, and there's normally very little. That's not only a result of the geographical distance that breeds a lack of transparency, but also because the Bush administration has through Executive Orders shielded companies in Iraq from public or regulatory scrutiny. There is a complete lack of accountability in defense spending. Everybody knows the constant increases are going to occur, so there's no discipline. From time to time, Congress will hold hearings to look into these problems and bluster about it. But as long as the same two parties are in control, it won't change because neither wants to limit the other one because that will eventually become a limitation on their own party.
Can the free market wean us from our oil dependency?
The recent experience with ethanol is a perfect example of special interests pushing governmental leaders to favor one approach, and one product, over another. Ethanol has been no gain to the general economy, but it's been a boon for certain agricultural producers. It hasn't done anything to clean up our air so to speak, or to wean us from the ever-increasing need for petroleum. The market needs to determine what's going to work and what isn't. The high price at the pump proves that point. People have changed their driving habits and their car purchasing patterns.
Where wouldn't you drill for oil?
I wouldn't drill where there's no oil. Where there's oil, I'd drill.
How has your stance on the Iraq War changed?
The Bush administration used what is best described as bait-and-switch. In 2002, they came to the Congress and the American people and laid out a scenario based on a false sales pitch. They secured a resolution and the support of the country to go in and take care of a specific problem. Again, based on false information. But it was still a very short-term objective: Go in and take out Saddam Hussein and his regime, which in the view of the administration, was a serious and imminent threat to the United States.
Did you believe that?
I voted for the resolution in 2002 based on clear arguments. We were told that intelligence showed there were weapons of mass destruction maintained by the Saddam Hussein regime and that they were poised to use them against America and its interests. We need to stop the Iraq War immediately. It will only be when we remove the economic and military security blanket that's propping up the Iraqi regime, that they'll take responsibility for their own affairs. I'm glad to see there's some movement in that direction, but it's still several years away. That's too long to have the hemorrhaging of American taxpayer dollars going over to Iraq.
Most people hold some Libertarian views. We all want less government somewhere. But gun owners don't have the same concerns as people advocating for gay marriage, or the elimination of the IRS, or the legalization of drugs. How do you bring the different groups and agendas together?
You look for the common ground. That's what I've done since leaving Congress. I worked with both the ACLU and the ACU, the American Conservative Union, for about four years on the same issues. It's the respect for smaller government in the arena of personal privacy where there's overlap between the left and the right. My job is to remind people that they have to put aside their differences on other issues to work on their fundamental liberties. Otherwise, they're all going to lose.
Do you fear being labeled the Ralph Nader of 2008?
I am not in the presidential race to be a spoiler. I have much better things to do with my time.