Give Him Liberty, Or...
Give Him Liberty, Or...
Bob Barr, the former Republican turned Libertarian candidate for President, on the faux-conservatism of John McCain, the uselessness of the federal government, and why he's now in favor of gay marriage (we think)
by wil s. hylton
there was a time, not so long ago, when Bob Barr commanded the attention of millions. From his perch on the House Judiciary Committee, the Georgia congressman launched the impeachment of Bill Clinton and presided over its daily march, grilling witnesses, orchestrating events, and doing everything in his considerable power to bring down a sitting president.
There was time when it looked like Barr might succeed, when it looked like he might change American history.
That time has passed.
Today, standing in line at a Manhattan Starbucks in a wrinkled suit, his eyes puffy, the 59-year-old looks older and weary, just another corporate flunky waiting to wake up. He shuffles to the counter, gives the barista a pleading look. “Five shots of espresso,” he says. “In a cup. With milk.” Then, turning sheepishly: “I only do this three times a day.”
Since losing his reelection in 2002, Barr has lost not only his power but also many of his friends. It doesn’t help that after alienating nearly every Democrat with impeachment, he spent the next five years alienating his fellow Republicans —railing against the invasion of Iraq, the PATRIOT Act, and the Bush administration in general. If Barr were still in the Congress, it is safe to say he would be one of the few members willing to launch a second impeachment.
Instead, he’s taking the outside track—joining the Libertarian Party and, in May, becoming its nominee for president. With just 2 to 3 percent in the polls—mostly coming from disillusioned conservatives—he spends most of his time on the trail answering questions like “Why are you doing this to John McCain?” Yet Barr is more than a wannabe Nader; he’s a man of opinions and ideas—even if they do seem to change quite often. It seems only fair to hear him out, especially since, as a third-party candidate, he doesn’t give a rat’s ass whom he offends.
All right. We have seven hours and fifty-eight minutes left on the recorder.
Let’s get started, then! Not a moment to waste.
I don’t really have any campaign questions. I don’t care whether you’re a spoiler, and I know why you’re doing this: because you want to be president.
In a nutshell.
What I want to know is: What’s a Libertarian?
There are a lot of different ways to define it. In layman’s terms, it’s simply saying “leave us alone” to the government. We certainly need a government to protect everybody’s individual liberty, but it should be kept to an absolute minimum.
So you don’t want the government to help people? Just leave them alone to help themselves?
To keep impediments out of the way.
But some of your positions don’t fit that description. For example, you’re pro-life, even though the party is pro-choice.
It is. But there are, within the party, a number of pro-life Libertarians. It’s a big tent. Very similar to the way it was when the Republican Party cared about substance and you would have free-market Republicans, economic Republicans, those for whom foreign policy was their focus, education, religion, and so forth.
The party also supports legalization of drugs. And you were an anti-drug coordinator at the Justice Department, as well as holding other drug-war positions.
I’ve come a long way on the drug war. Having been involved in it, witnessing it, and after a great deal of study, I’ve come to the conclusion that it simply isn’t working and we ought to get the federal government out of it. There are some Libertarians who want to go much further than that, but they’re supporting me.
But that’s a big switch for you.
It’s obvious to me that the federal drug laws are being used as a club to deny the people of individual states the right to legalize, for example, medicinal marijuana. That, to me, flies in the face of a fundamental notion of fairness.
But for years, you were the one doing it. Ten years ago, the citizens of Washington, D.C., voted to legalize medical marijuana by a 70 percent majority, and you wrote a federal law called the Barr Amendment to prevent that from happening.
Well, I now believe there is so little personal freedom, so little privacy, and the government has become so oppressive, that we can no longer afford to let the government control these particular areas, such as the use of marijuana. Because there’s no freedom left. This administration has become so oppressive that it has caused me to go back and look at a number of areas where I was wrong to allow the government to involve itself in people’s lives.
So you want to revoke the Barr Amendment?
Yes, and I did some work with the Marijuana Policy Project.
Was that a paid position?
Yeah, I did consulting for about six months in the latter part of last year.
Didn’t the MPP campaign against you in 2002, when you lost your House seat?
There were ads against me on the drug issue, but I don’t know who ran them. The Libertarian Party also worked against me in 2002. In both cases, it caused me to take a close, hard look: Why would they work against me? The more I looked, the more I liked what I saw.
Are you worried about being accused of flip-flopping? One minute it’s the Barr Amendment, the next you’re on staff at the Marijuana Policy Project.
Well, it’s a fact: My views have changed. If you recognize that a policy is not working and is based on an erroneous presumption, you have to change. There is no use spending billions of dollars just because we have to stay the course. It’s the same situation in Iraq, only it’s hundreds of billions. Being a good leader is being willing to change. I was very disappointed in 2004 when John Kerry allowed the Bush campaign to browbeat him on the PATRIOT Act. Early in the campaign, he said, “Look, I voted for the PATRIOT Act, but it’s time for it to be changed.” The Bush people called him a flip-flopper, and the whole discussion didn’t come up again.
In fact, the act was renewed.
It was, and I spent a great deal of time working against it. There again: I had voted for the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001, but after seeing how it was used and abused and expanded by the administration, I think it was the worst vote I cast in the Congress. Because it undercuts the whole system of checks and balances in our criminal-justice system. It stands for the proposition that the government can gather evidence against someone without any evidence whatsoever of criminal behavior. The simplistic and very misleading explanation that Bush and Ashcroft and Gonzales—all the apologists for this administration—make is “Well, we can spy on American citizens, because if they’re talking to Al Qaeda, we want to know.”
The problem is, you don’t know whether they’re talking to Al Qaeda until after you start spying on them.
And the fact of the matter is that if the government has any evidence that somebody is in contact with a terrorist, they can get a warrant from a court. But they’re using this power to surveil people without any evidence.
But why is that surprising? This is exactly what the PATRIOT Act said, and you voted for it. Didn’t you read it?
I was probably one of the very few who did read it. I forget what it was called before some brainiac came up with the acronym USA PATRIOT Act—Uniting and Strengthening America, blah blah blah—but I read it very, very carefully. And I had tremendous doubts. I had worked on the 1996 antiterrorism bill that the Clinton administration proposed, and there were tremendous similarities between the two. In 1996, I had led an effort to remove several of the provisions that were way too broad, and we were successful. But many of those same provisions resurfaced in the PATRIOT Act. So all sorts of red lights went off.
Then why did you vote for it?
Well, I worked with the administration to remove some provisions and alter others, and I also received personal assurances from the administration that they would not seek to expand those powers further—that they would use them only for bona fide terrorism investigations, and they would report fully and accurately to Congress on how it was being used. And they went back on it all. I learned that you cannot take the word of this administration. In every one of those areas, they went back on it.
Do you feel like you were blinded by 9/11?
That certainly was a problem for the majority of the members of the House. Most of them never even looked at the bill. They just got caught up in the hysteria—this notion that the administration had come to us with a special request. Which was bogus, because most of the provisions in the PATRIOT Act, they had presented to us previously.
It’s funny you say, “they had presented to us previously,” when you’re talking about two different administrations. Do you see the White House as a single institution, regardless of who’s president?
It is. It’s the same establishment, the same power-hungry entity, whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat. And the PATRIOT Act is the perfect example. Every administration that comes in takes the powers that it inherits from its predecessor as a floor, not a ceiling. So whether it’s McCain or Obama, they’ll inherit the powers of the Bush administration. And what Bush has done is taken this debate to a whole new level, which is that the president, as commander in chief, is not bound by any restrictions whatsoever. This notion that the president can do whatever he wants, just because he’s commander in chief, means that neither the Congress nor the courts can interfere.
You have opposed the Bush administration on a number of issues, including the war, but what is your policy for Iraq going forward?
To me, it is utterly irresponsible to continue the course that we’ve embarked upon. If our goal was to get rid of Saddam Hussein, we liberated the people from Saddam Hussein. But now we’re five and a half years later, and we’re still over there, and it’s very costly to us. I don’t think the American taxpayers focus on how much the occupation is draining resources. Four-hundred-plus million dollars every single day. You talk to some Republicans and they say, “The Iraqis love us.” Well, maybe so. But who wouldn’t? We’re propping up their economy, we’re protecting their borders, we’re providing security. Of course they love us.
Is there any difference between your plan for Iraq and Obama’s?
It’s hard to say, because I don’t know that he’s laid out a plan with any great specificity. It’s my view that we need an immediate and very significant drawdown of our military and economic presence in Iraq. We are not going to assume responsibility for another country.
Do you think if McCain becomes president, we’ll be stuck in the same position for another four years?
Based on the statements he’s made, yes. I mean, McCain may think it’s fine to spend $400 million a day as far into the future as anyone can see, but that’s not his money. This is the problem. These folks in Washington might think it’s a great mission we’re serving over there, but is this the wisest use of taxpayer money? Is it more important to spend billions of dollars improving Iraq’s infrastructure or improving the infrastructure of our own country?
Does it make you question McCain’s conservative credentials to see him support such a costly war?
I’m not sure that anybody can legitimately say that McCain is conservative.
Talk to me about the Defense of Marriage Act. You were one of the authors in 1996, but your position has changed on that, too.
The changes are best understood when one recognizes that DOMA has two parts. The first part is the federalism part, and it essentially says that each state can decide, using the “full faith and credit” clause of the Constitution, to impose its own definition of marriage, free from the other states.
But that’s not what the “full faith and credit” clause says. It says the opposite: that each state has to recognize the laws of other states.
Well, the Defense of Marriage Act says that the “full faith and credit” clause cannot be used by one state to force its definition of marriage on another state.
Can you give me an example of any other time that the “full faith and credit” clause has been rescinded for a single issue?
Not as we sit here. But it did seem at the time, and I think still is, appropriate for the Congress to say we have an important social relationship and we want to make sure that each state is free to set its own definition. It’s federalism.
But the point of the “full faith and credit” clause is to limit federalism. It says, “Sure, you can have your own laws, but you have to respect the laws of other states, too.”
Yes, the “full faith and credit” clause says, “We don’t care what you in the state of Freedonia have decided, you have to adopt the definition of the citizens of the state of Acme.”
And your position involves ignoring that part of the Constitution.
Yes. It’s reaffirming the notion of federalism.
By waiving the Constitution.
And has that been done for anything else?
I don’t recall, to be honest with you. I think it has, but as we’re sitting here, I don’t recall.
But that was just the first clause, which I still think has validity and I still support. The second provision, I’ve come to view as both unnecessary and disruptive. It has the federal definition of marriage as being “a lawful union between one man and one woman only.”
Which is definitely not the Libertarian position.
Right, and I’ve committed to repeal that part of DOMA. Because as I’ve come to understand, that part of DOMA is being used as the tail wagging the dog. I don’t believe, for example, that the federal government should play a role in defining marriage. It has been, and should be, up to the states.
But how can you say it’s “being used” to define marriage? Wasn’t that the point of DOMA, to define marriage?
Well, yes, for federal-law purposes. But we now have states like Massachusetts and California that have changed their definition of marriage, and the federal government says, “Well, you still can’t do all sorts of things defined by federal law.” So you’re undercutting the decision by the people of that state to decide for themselves.
But wasn’t that the intention? It was always a question of whether the federal government would recognize a state marriage. DOMA was designed to make sure it didn’t.
The best way I can describe it is that it’s become the tail wagging the dog.
What do you mean by that?
That it provides a disincentive for the states to pass same-sex marriage laws, because they can’t guarantee protection under federal law.
But that’s exactly what DOMA was supposed to do: prevent the federal government from recognizing gay marriage. Isn’t that why you supported it?
Yeah. Exactly. I’m not denying that. But it was not intended to be, at least in my mind, the tail wagging the dog.
Has joining the Libertarian Party allowed you to change your position on these issues, or did you change party after your positions changed?
It isn’t a function of which party I’m in—although in the case of the Defense of Marriage Act, it’s been the result of lengthy conversations with Libertarians who feel very passionately about it. There’s a group called Outright Libertarians who are passionate about that issue.
Had you ever met with the Log Cabin Republicans?
I don’t recall. But I came to the conclusion that the Republican Party had changed, from two perspectives. One, the Republican Party cares nothing about real substance anymore. I couldn’t tell you the last time, when I was a member of the Republican caucus on the Hill, that there was a discussion about the substance of government. It was all about getting elected and reelected. It was all about process. The Republican Party is no longer a party of any substance. It is simply a political machine, a mechanism for election. That’s all it is. And secondly, the Republican Party has bought into the notion that when the president decides what he wants to do, nobody can interfere. The courts can’t interfere, and the Congress can’t interfere.
Do you feel a sense of responsibility for your time as a Republican? It seems like this campaign is a kind of personal correction.
It doesn’t have anything to do with me. It has to do with the direction that the country is going.
Except that, in many cases, you promoted the policies you’re running against—DOMA, the Barr Amendment, the PATRIOT Act.
I think that’s given me a pretty strong and pretty credible perspective on some of these issues. But the problem is not just a handful of issues. It’s not just George W. Bush. It’s not just the Republican Party. It’s the institution of government as we’ve allowed it to develop. And I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way to change that is through a third party.
You started out as a Democrat, right?
You weren’t a member of the Young Democrats in college?
Well, yeah, I was briefly with the Young Democrats. I think the turning point was in my sophomore year, reading Atlas Shrugged. That really moved my thinking, philosophically—the fundamental role of individual rights.
And you don’t perceive the GOP as the party of individual rights anymore?
Well, it’s not just what I perceive. The Republican Party in 2008 is clearly not a party of individual liberty.
When did that happen?
I remember the precise moment. I was elected to Congress in 1994 with the Republican Revolution, and four years later we were in one of the House Republican caucuses, just before the ’98 election, and the leadership came in and said very clearly, “We’ve got an election coming up. Anybody here who has a problem in their district, sit down with Representative Kasich or Armey and tell them what you need to have in this year’s budget to win your election.” And they might as well have had a sign flashing in the background that said “business as usual.” We were no longer serious about reining in government. And now McCain goes out and talks about doing away with earmarks, and the public applauds. But in one year, you could simply freeze spending and save ten times as much. They want to give the appearance of tackling the issue, but not really. It’s part of the same shell game they use cycle after cycle.
Speaking of shell games, I noticed that the Libertarian Party supports “unrestricted competition among banks.” Doesn’t that seem naive, given the housing crisis the banks have created?
Well, one of the mistakes I think we’re on the verge of making yet again is to react to a problem in the economy by overlaying a whole new set of regulations. I think that would be a mistake. All we’re doing is providing more and more government interference in the free market.
Why shouldn’t the government interfere in the market and rein in corporations?
Is that the job of the federal government? I would say absolutely not. The government is not there to guarantee that the market is going to operate in a certain way.
Isn’t the government there to do whatever the people want? Isn’t that the whole idea of a democracy?
In a pure democracy, yes. But we don’t have a pure democracy. We have certain principles on which the nation is founded. The basic philosophy—the reason the government was set up the way it is—is to keep the government out of those areas. In our system, it’s not the job of the federal government to do those things. It is the job of the government to ensure free commerce.
Do you actually believe free commerce will cap pollution and keep the water pure and the air clean?
It may or may not.
Don’t you think the public has a right to keep its water clean?
I wouldn’t equate public concern with the appropriate role of government. The public, by and large, would like government to do all sorts of things.
And this is a democracy, and the government should do what they want.
It’s not a democracy. We have certain principles. The government exists to provide very limited functions—for example, free commerce.
The government exists to do whatever people want it to do.
Part of the problem is that we no longer have a truly educated public. The Founding Fathers lived in a very different world. They lived in a world where people understood and cared about the written word. They had a much more educated citizenry.
The reason the “citizenry” was more educated was because the “citizenry” excluded everybody who wasn’t a white male landowner.
Abigail Adams was one of the brightest people around back then.
But she couldn’t vote, and neither could slaves, or anybody who didn’t own land.
But Abigail Adams still influenced public policy through her interchanges with her husband. Part of the problem today is that we don’t have an educated citizenry like that. The citizenry may clamor for the government to do all sorts of things. That does not provide an appropriate basis for the government to do it.
Who else is going to decide what the government should do, if not the citizenry?
We don’t live in a democracy! This was not intended to be a country where the citizenry decides what they want government to do! We have a structure of government that is based on principles, independent of the vagaries of public opinion.
I’m not sure that’s true at all. The citizens can elect representatives to do whatever they want. If the citizens want to take away their own right to free speech, they can do it.
They can make government come to their doors every morning with a newspaper and donuts if they want.
Well, we’re almost at that point.
When we talk about the ignorant masses, I can’t help but wonder about your position on public education. Doesn’t the Libertarian Party want to eliminate public schools?
Ideally, yes. But if we say, “Okay, we’re going to immediately dismantle the whole structure of public education,” nobody’s going to buy into it. That is, I think, a very important goal and a very important principle.
So in your opinion, as a long-term goal, there should be no government involvement in education?
And in the short term, I believe there is no appropriate or legitimate role for the federal government.
How would you accomplish that?
By getting the federal government out of it. I forget what the budget of the Department of Education is, but those billions of dollars should not be vested in the federal government. That money should go back to the people. There’s no reason whatsoever for the federal government to be involved in education.
So you’d eliminate the Department of Education. Are there any other departments you would eliminate?
I find it very hard to understand why we have a Department of Commerce. There might need to be an office that carries out certain functions to ensure free commerce, but that could be handled by the Department of Justice. Also, the Department of Energy. What is federal energy policy? I’m not sure we have one.
Does it strike you as a contradiction to be a lifelong conservative who is promoting such radical change?
There certainly are unintended consequences that come with change. It is important, I think, that we recognize that we are not just Libertarians but responsible Libertarians. I’m not interested in disrupting the fabric of our country. It will take time. It will take a lot of time. We haven’t gotten here overnight. It started over one hundred years ago with trust-busting and accelerated with Wilson and FDR and Nixon and Johnson…
But those presidents also initiated government programs that were hugely successful. Think of the G.I. Bill.
The G.I. Bill, for those who participated, was great. But is that the criteria—that simply because massive government intervention benefits a certain number of people, it’s a good reason for doing it? No.
The G.I. Bill didn’t just help a few people. It did wonders for the country, increased home ownership, and allowed thousands of veterans to return to a normal life.
It may have worked from the standpoint of taking money from one group of people and putting it into the pockets of another group of people. But I’m talking about a fundamental philosophical issue here. At its core, whether you’re talking about the G.I. Bill or Medicare or Medicaid, it’s the government taking money from one person and using it for another, by threat of force. That may be beneficial to some, but that doesn’t make it an appropriate function of government.
Would you have opposed the New Deal and the Works Progress Administration?
That’s a hypothetical.
Everything I’m asking is a hypothetical.
Well, that’s a double hypothetical. That’s a hypothetical on top of a hypothetical.
Every time I ask what you’ll do as president, it’s a double hypothetical.
No, that’s just a hypothetical.
It’s two. The first hypothetical is if you’re president, the second is what you’ll do.
What can I say? I think we have a tremendous opportunity through the Libertarian Party and the libertarian philosophy to change the structure of the American government.
Well, good luck.
wil s. hylton is a GQ correspondent.