Its been said that Americans love a good comeback story. Whether or not this is actually true will be demonstrated at the polls next year as former congressman Bob Barr, who retired from public office a decade ago, attempts to reclaim a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Though the timing may seem odd, as the Supreme Court is currently scrutinizing the constitutionality of his prime legislative accomplishment, the Defense of Marriage Act, there is far more to the Barr saga than casual observers realize. Examining the Georgia Republican’s career and aspirations provides unique insight into the history and potential future of the Republican Party, as well as the ideological clash between neo-conservatism and its libertarian counterpart.
In an age when Rand Paul and the Republicans’ libertarian wing enjoy unprecedented public support, Barr’s planned return to legislative office isn’t that shocking. Though he left Congress on an undoubtedly conservative note, Barr has been hard at work rebranding himself.
A 2008 presidential campaign with the Libertarian Party allowed the former Representative to market himself to a new demographic: the Ron Paul revolutionaries who flooded the GOP primaries demanding fiscal conservatism and social openness. Though his campaign failed to emulate the grassroots success Paul enjoyed, the adventure into the world of alternative parties was not without its benefits.
Despite being an accomplished legislator, Barr was a polarizing figure within the nation’s largest alternative party. Though he emerged victorious from their national convention, his history as a social conservative offended many of the more ideologically pure Libertarians.
The self-professed “radicals,” who advocate a completely uninterrupted free market system, were aghast Barr was selected as their nominee, an apparent attempt to snag a “big name” with establishment credentials over more ideologically consistent, but less widely marketable alternatives. Though he undoubtedly campaigned from the right, the radicals forced Barr to distance himself from many of the socially conservative ideas popularized during his career, even going so far as to rebuke the Defense of Marriage Act and the Patriot Act.
This evolution, though not enough to please his purist critics, may ultimately aid Barr in his quest for twenty-first century acceptance. Though he remains a galvanizing figure, the newly libertarian Barr remains unapologetic about dabbling in the world of third parties, an independent history that may actually aid his electoral prospects.
“I actually believe it’s beneficial to him,” said Russ Verney, Barr’s 2008 campaign manager. “The Republicans and Democrats don’t like competition, and one of the ways of eliminating competition is to absorb it into the party…it is in the Republicans’ interests to reach out more to the libertarian wing of the electorate by welcoming Bob Barr, and of course, if he wins the nomination they have no choice but to welcome it and make the most of it.”
What purist Libertarians think of Barr doesn’t matter. What they gave him is important: the credibility to argue he is well suited to join the ranks of the modern libertarian revolution.
Barr is not the first Republican to join the Libertarians and then return to the Republican Party. Ron Paul followed a similar path, exiting Congress to run as the third party’s presidential nominee in 1988 before rejoining Congress and the GOP a few years later.
“I don’t know if Barr has separated himself from social conservatism, but he has proven to be a leader of individuals’ rights and freedoms,” said Verney. “I don’t think there is anyone in either party with as many credentials as Bob has.”
Though his presidential bid failed to go “mainstream,” in post-millennial American politics — where a history of social conservatism may prove a burdensome anchor — the newly reinvented Bob Barr, now cast as a champion of individual liberty, could very well be ahead of the curve.