Sunday, May 18, 2008

Libertarian Party Convention This Week: World Waits

Now let us decide the fate of the world. Or at least, let us consider this week how the marginal Libertarian Party could (really) end up determining the outcome of the presidential election in 2008 — and how that scenario hinges in large part (don’t laugh) on events that will occur later this week at the Libertarian Party nominating convention in Denver.

Just to recap (and after this, I’ll simply assume readers know what’s going on):

It’s been a politically interesting year, with more wrangling than usual over how to “brand” and define a given party or ideology, and Republicans are painfully aware that their best hope for retaining the White House, John McCain, offers hope of picking up independent and moderate voters precisely because he is not perceived as a pure conservative and certainly is not a libertarian. So, much as Hillary Clinton has had to calculate how far she could appear to move toward the center (picking up some hawks, centrists, and white populists) without losing her leftist base, McCain, no matter how stubborn and independent-minded he purports to be, has to be asking himself how many conservative and libertarian voters he’ll lose in the process of chasing after centrists (by embracing global warming regulations, campaign finance restrictions, etc.).

In some elections, like 2000 and 2004 (the latter of which I’ll look at in a Retro-Journal entry next month), most conservatives and even many libertarians say “close enough” or “lesser of two evils” and vote for the ostensibly-less-socialist of the two major party candidates for president, the Republican. But three factors make it less likely that McCain can coast in that way this year:

(1) Conservatives and libertarians, while having some differing priorities, are really fed up with Bush and the Republicans in general, who squandered the past fourteen years, increased the size of government, and poorly managed a war.

(2) McCain is such a “maverick” that it’s not clear conservatives should regard his winning in November as anything more than an even-more-pyrrhic-than-usual victory (his only ideology being, as Reason editor Matt Welch argues, a sort of issue-by-issue desire to solve problems that appear to bring dishonor to the U.S. and breed cynicism — not the worst impulse in the world but hardly one that can be relied on to limit government action).

(3) Conservatives and libertarians, many of whom looked with some wistfulness at the quixotic candidacy of Ron Paul (as did I early on, arguing that he would be a great fusionist candidate, combining a humble and non-authoritarian social conservatism with strict libertarianism), will have a Paul-like option, in some ways a more mainstream Paul-like option, if former Republican representative Bob Barr gets the Libertarian Party presidential nomination.

Like a lot of libertarians (small l as opposed to the narrower group of large L party members, who are often more doctrinaire), I’ve tended to see the Libertarian Party as either a mere publicity stunt for the philosophy (sometimes good publicity, sometimes embarrassing publicity) or at best a strategic protest vote. This may be the best-ever combination of circumstances for a protest vote that has a real impact, possibly taking enough votes from McCain to put Obama in the White House and force the GOP, at long last, to conclude they need to go back to promoting limited government if they want to win back conservative and libertarian love, or even grudging, skeptical acceptance.

I see only three reasons for qualms (though pro-Barr Avery Knapp and pro-McCain Ken Silber will argue all this in greater detail at our momentous June 4 Debate at Lolita Bar — where I will genuinely listen with an open mind):

(1) Obama might be so much worse than McCain that teaching the Republicans a lesson is not a big enough benefit to offset an Obama presidency (I’m not convinced this is the case — though certainly anyone who likes divided government ought to be far more nervous than I about the prospect of an Obama presidency, even if he isn’t a crazy left-wing ideologue).

(2) McCain might himself be the “punishment” that the GOP needs, since he seems aware of the GOP’s failings and mistakes and might productively move the party (and the White House) toward transparency and willingness to admit errors, both sorely missed in recent years. McCain’s lack of a clear ideology might be perfectly suited to a period of productive internal debate about what conservatism means, even with the ostensible leader of the movement sitting in the Oval Office (by contrast, until 2006, conservatives spent much of the Bush years simply defending their president).

(3) The Libertarians might not pick Barr, in which case (since their other potential nominees are mostly hardcore libertarians with less name recognition and less crossover appeal to disgruntled conservatives) they likely lose the ability to be a significant, effective protest vote — or they might (though I think this is unlikely, given his less-convincing conversion to the philosophy) make newly-Libertarian ex-Democrat Mike Gravel the v.p. running mate of Barr, in which case the LP perhaps pulls votes equally from right and left, again muting its ability to be a strategically useful protest vote (but perhaps setting a nice example of bi-post-partisanship, so to speak, for future campaigns).

So: given Qualm #3, much hinges on what that kooky, nerdy bunch of party stalwarts in Denver decide to offer the world as the pro-liberty alternative for voters this fall — and they decide in a four-day convention from May 22 (Thursday) through May 26 (Monday a week from now, when Memorial Day is observed).

I should add a Qualm #4, which is that even though no one including Barr expects him to become president (making his precise qualifications for office and precise agenda somewhat irrelevant), it might be argued that he’s been too right-wing in the past (architect of DOMA, etc.) or is too antiwar now to send the correct “message” to the GOP anyway, though for that limited purpose, I do think he’s “close enough,” and he at least sounds convincingly like a gung-ho convert to boot (though that may not matter).

Nerdier Sidenote

But if all this seems to deviate too much from the sci-fi-type themes of my Month of the Nerd, I offer you this: tomorrow (Monday the 19th) at 7pm at the Half King (505 West 23rd St.), you can hear a reading by Benjamin Nugent, the author of American Nerd: The Story of My People, with his analysis of all manner of geeks, dorks, pointdexters, and eggheads.

Political Afterthoughts

•In a reminder that there are party squabbles even more marginal than the Libertarians’, Jacob Levy tells me that many observers were surprised to see Alan Keyes passed over last month for the Constitution Party nomination. Maybe he, too, will try becoming a libertarian, though that would be a bridge too crazy for me, even as a protest or publicity stunt.

•Just to show that I am not the kind of wanton vandal who likes contemplating spoilers and protest votes, I must say that much as I might enjoy a Jesse Ventura presidential run, I am disinclined to want him in the senate race in Minnesota, where I would think he might pull right-wing votes from Norm Coleman and put (shudder) Al Franken in the Senate. (Then again, maybe he’d just pull some “pro-Hollywood” votes from Franken.)

Franken doesn’t even deserve to be entrusted with a radio show, never mind the reins of power. Maybe if I scraped together the $5,000 or so that would be needed to buy what’s left of Air America, I could offer him his old job back and get him to drop out of the race. I’ll tell him he doesn’t have to declare any of his pay to the IRS, just to sweeten the deal — I mean, once Barr abolishes the IRS.

•In another reminder, by the way, why even the sort of “libertarian paternalism” I discussed in yesterday’s entry leads all too easily to the usual totalitarian regulation of our lives, I note the following all too common example of people’s desire to scapegoat — and thus tweak — external forces instead of encouraging individual responsibility: After about a decade and a half of the Web, people are still trying to scapegoat technology for psychological problems like the ones made manifest by this mass suicide. People who think the Net is to blame — or advertising or porn or day-trading — should not be encouraged to come up with new lists of environmental factors in need of adjustment.


Mike said...

Ventura wins every election he enters. And lets face it a guy that doesn’t pay his taxes is going to lose out big time to a Ventura type. I’ just not going to get into who he pulls more votes from when he’s 2 for 2.

Kevin B. O'Reilly said...

I just don’t see how Barr, should he get the LP nomination, will have a decisive impact in any state. First, he will not be able to raise Paul kind of money because he does not inspire the kind of loyalty and enthusiasm that Paul did. Paul had a long, long record of opposing overseas intervention and big spending at home. Barr has neither.

Second, I think it’s clear that strategic voting in general election contests is pretty rare. Indeed, the closer the race is the fewer protest votes there will be. And recall that Republican primary voters clearly *rejected* Paul’s message (unfortunately). Rather, they split their votes among a pandering technocrat (Romney), an honorable warmonger (McCain), and a funny Bible-thumper (Huckabee). Where’s the libertarian protest vote there that would actually make a difference in fall?